X. Philosophy: Systematic Thought in Upper Palaeolithic Cave Art
Dualism is pervasive in Ice Age art, ruling everything from the co-existence of the two sexes to the cosmic dichotomy of earth and sky. The artists, however, recognized a subtle complexity beyond the apparent simplicity of polarization. Rather than unmitigated contrasts between summer and winter, the cave decorations offer elaborate descriptions of transitions between the two seasonal extremes, demonstrating a complementary dualism, in which one principle decreases as the other one increases, and vice versa. The multifaceted relationship between bison and horses in the caves exemplifies this dichotomy, as the increasingly forceful presence of the former (represnetative of the earth) coincides with the decreasing power of the latter (agent of solar powers), and vice versa. Adhering to this concept of complementary expansion and contraction, the thinking of Upper Palaeolithic artists was close to the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang.
Part One demonstrates the application of this concept in the organization of a few, comprehensive cave decorations. Part Two analyzes the abstract signs used by the artists to clarify the philosophical implications of the animal figures (2016).
PART ONE: DUALISM IN CAVE PROGRAMS
( 2014/ 2018)
Many scholars recognize evidence of meaning in Ice Age art, but few may be prepared to acknowledge an elaborate philosophical structure behind the images. Generally, cultural anthropology sides with a line of thought succinctly articulated by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy (1982): comprehensive, systematic thinking was not feasible before the invention of writing. The theory is seductive, for it is true that in an oral culture any idea will be lost unless it is incessantly passed down from one generation to the next. Yet, Ong’s position is ultimately wrong, and not the least so because he, and the history of ideas at large, ignore Upper Palaeolithic cave art with its evidence of a tradition that lasted roughly 25,000 years. How could visual conventions retain currency for that long if they were not associated with lasting ideas? And, how could those ideas remain valid over such a long span of time if not part of some consistent thought?
Statistical analyses (Sauvet and Wlodarczyk 1995, and 2000-2001) show that the cave artists were selective in choosing and combining their subjects; the images carried meaning. Given the evidence that the artists assigned specific ideas to their select motifs and themes, we must consider the possibility that their thinking was, indeed, systematic, and that Walter Ong is only partly right in assuming that images are too imprecise–”unfixed” (1982, 86)–to compare with true writing. It appears that the fund of concepts behind the images was broadly understood, both by the artists themselves and by the communities that authorized and supported their work; the artists could express their thoughts in images, and the viewers could decode the messages. If so, the major decorated caves may be depositories for a body of cogent ideas, perhaps organized by a genuine program for the decoration.
The following discussion of Chauvet, an early cave with a complex decoration, will identify a significant number of ideas that are articulated in images, as well as themes that interconnect images, and ultimately, an over-ruling principle to which the themes are subject.
The black and the red: dualism in Chauvet
Chauvet is one of a mere handful of major cave sanctuaries for which a substantial portion of the imagery can be dated back more than thirty thousand years, and it is the richest of these very old sites. With a repertory of several hundred animal figures, hundreds of signs, and numerous ritual vestiges, Chauvet offers a substantial body of materials for iconographic analyses. The first explorers of Chauvet already noticed the most obvious indicator of a plan behind the decoration, namely that virtually all of the painted figures in the innermost half of the cave are black, while virtually all those painted in the outermost half are red. The former are painted with charcoal, the latter with ocher (Chauvet, et al. 1996, 66). Curiously, commentators usually ignore this color scheme, which, for example, is neither acknowledged in Werner Herzog’s film documentary on the cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (commercially released in 2011), nor in the diagram of Chauvet in David Lewis-Williams’ shamanistic manifesto, The Mind in the Cave (2002, 16).
Surely, this color separation is not accidental. Even if we were to speculate that some of the red images possibly were painted long before the black ones, the earlier artists may already have had the division of the space in mind, just as the later artists obviously had the older red images vividly present when adding their own red and black ones. Indeed, other caves, from different ages and regions, show a comparable division into two halves, one with mainly red images, the other with predominantly black ones. Examples include the caves of Pech-Merle and Castillo (both with a “red” northern half against a “black” southern half), and, Altamira and La Pileta (both with a “red” outer half and a “black” inner half).
Anthropologist Joëlle Robert-Lamblin recognizes the red/black division of Chauvet as intentional and meaningful (2003, 202). She pinpoints the dividing line between the two halves to a natural feature that actually falls quite near the middle of the cave, and has been named the Threshold (Le Seuil). This location is marked by a denivelation of the floor where a narrow passage separates two larger halls (Fig. 1a). More significant still, Robert-Lamblin pays attention to the coincidence of this color duality and the distribution of certain motifs, noting that the cave’s approximately fifteen bears are (almost) all in the front part of the cave and are correspondingly painted red. Likewise, the important motif of hand prints is specific to the front part and is overwhelmingly in red. From the perspective of comparative, cross-cultural studies, Robert-Lamblin sees the dual division of Chauvet as the outcome of a “primordial dichotomy,” a universal tendency for archaic cultures to think about the world in terms of binary principles, such as male/female, earth/sky, land/sea, summer/winter (2003, 204).
Duality is, indeed, a pervasive feature of Chauvet and its decoration, and a number of examples may be added to the ones mentioned by Robert-Lamblin. Thus the two cave halves have quite different morphological characters, not the least because the Descending Gallery, the downward-sloping corridor in the back, largely defines the nature of the inner cave. During its course it drops more than thirty feet and ends in chambers that mark the low points of the cave (Fig. 1b). The outer section, by contrast, is characterized by spacious areas, including Brunel Hall, which is adjacent to the entrance (Fig. 1a). The imagery is correlated with these physical differences, to the effect that the innermost and lowest section of the Descending Gallery assembles the essential “black” themes and is dominated by lions and rhinoceroses; at the opposite end, Brunel Hall gathers the “red” themes and prominently features bears.
At the bottom of its steep slope, the Descending Gallery presents a panoramic frieze with scores of lions and rhinos, a uniquely vehement spectacle that profoundly shocked the first modern-day explorers. Containing by far most of the cave’s lions (about fifty of some seventy-five lions) and rhinos (about forty-five of sixty-five), this segment of the corridor is undoubtedly the epicenter of inner-cave motifs. Bison, too, are characteristic of the innermost cave (about twenty-five out of thirty bison). These figures are almost exclusively painted in black, as is the single bear to be found in this area of the cave.
At the other end of the spectrum, Brunel Hall is unmistakably the main zone for outer-cave motifs, all of which are painted red. These include several bears, and most conspicuously, four panels crowded with a total of nearly five hundred large dots. These dots are actually prints of human hands made by coloring the palms–but not the fingers–with red ocher and pressing them against the rock wall. Whole fields of such red hands/dots are particular to Brunel Hall, where, in contrast with the situation at the other end of the cave, we find neither rhinoceroses nor bison and just a single (black) lion (Chauvet et al. 1996; Clottes 2003; Clottes and Azéma 2005; Gély and Azéma 2006).
Chauvet’s dichotomy of animal species, as expressed through different patterns of distribution, finds parallels in other caves. Though the numbers of lions and rhinos in the back of Chauvet is quite unique, the close connection between images of lions and the innermost parts of caves is also seen at other sites (for example, in Pech-Merle, Lascaux, Montespan, Pergouset, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles). Also the association of lions and rhinos is noticed elsewhere (for example, in Baume-Latrone, Aldène, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles).
As described above, the binary pattern of Chauvet seems to fit within Robert-Lamblin’s category of “primordial dichotomy,” and yet there is more to the cave’s decorative program than the division of everything according to two contrasting principles. Closer scrutiny of the artistic program provides clues to a more comprehensive system, an ambitious refinement of the dualistic mind-set.
First, it is a puzzling fact that even where one of the two contrasting agencies, the “black” or the “red,” is most forcefully present, we still find a faint statement, just a trace, of the opposite agency. Thus, while red images are almost negligible in the Descending Gallery, even its most remote area contains a few samples of red among all the black, including some inconspicuous groups of red dots; likewise, we find a single representation of the characteristic outer-cave motif, the bear, in the form of a single black figure. Conversely, at the other end of the cave, in Brunel Hall, the accumulation of red images and the near-absence of the characteristic back-cave motifs still allows for a couple of black figures including the above-mentioned, token lion. From these discreet facts we may deduce that we are dealing not just with two opposite, mutually exclusive categories of motifs, but with two complementary principles that alternate in strength without ever completely eliminating each other.
Secondly, the sections of the cave situated between the two extreme, outermost regions trace a gradual transition whereby, starting from the end of the Descending Gallery passing through Hillaire Hall, the agency of the “black” decreases relative to the agency of the “red,” until a state of equilibrium is reached around the Threshold, the midpoint of the cave. Hereafter the balance tilts in favor of the “red” side, which reaches its peak in Brunel Hall. This graded progression points to the subtle concept of two complementary forces replacing each other in measured steps according to an over-arching scheme.
Going from the depths toward the entrance, the transition is first noticed in the upper portion of the Descending Gallery (cf. Fig. 1 a) where it is indicated, partly by a less massive presence of lions and rhinos, and partly by the sudden appearance of a very different–less brutal and threatening–animal species, the megaceros (or, giant deer) which vies with the rhino for dominance over this section of the cave. The decisive change in the character of the imagery is, however, reserved for the Hillaire Hall where it becomes manifest in the greatly reduced presence of those species that characterize the innermost cave, as well as in the greatly increased prominence of several other species.
In Hillaire Hall, the lion, the rhino, and the bison no longer dominate the stage. They are outnumbered by the reindeer, the aurochs, and the horse, the three species that are featured on the central panels of the hall. These project a less hostile ambience than the one created by the lions and rhinos in the panoramic panel on the lower level, signaling a fading of the “black” forces associated with the cave depths. This reversal of powers is succinctly expressed by the changed relationship between the horse and the inner-cave animals. Thus juxtapositions of horse and lion shift dramatically, from the scene in the remote “Sacristy,” where a grand lion totally dominates two tiny horses (Fig. 2), to a scene in Hillaire Hall where lions and horses are of matching sizes, suggesting a near-equal balance of powers (Fig. 3). Furthermore, the impact of the (four) lions in the hall is reduced because they all are confined to a large, alcove-like niche, while the main panel of horses (Fig. 4) is plainly exposed. The same dynamics apply to the relationship between horses and rhinoceroses. In the Descending Gallery, the great frieze with its stampede of rhinos (and hunting lions) surrounds a niche wherein a single, small horse is confined, but in Hillaire Hall this spectacle is reversed with a panel that shows the mentioned troupe of large horses rising above two rhinos (Fig. 4).
The transitory process also spawns specific, localized motifs. Thus the changed environment in Hillaire Hall is acknowledged through the prominence of the aurochs. While it is absent in the Descending Gallery, the aurochs here comes to the fore in panels that reflect the diminished role of both the rhinoceros (Fig. 5) and the lion (Fig. 6). We also observe a change of guard between the two species of wild oxen, the bison and the aurochs, in a panel that is right next to the exit from the Descending Gallery (Fig. 7): to the left is the first of the aurochs in Hillaire Hall; to the right is one of the two black bison that remain in the hall (the other one is in the mentioned alcove with the lions). Likewise, reindeer are conspicuous in Hillaire Hall, whereas the Descending Gallery has just a single specimen, which is submerged by hordes of rhinos and lions. In Hillaire Hall, the reindeer first appear in the panel that also shows the first of the aurochs (half a dozen reindeer are, however, omitted from the schematic rendition, Fig. 7). Together with the above-mentioned megaceros, the aurochs and the reindeer are representative of the transition from the lower cave to Hillaire Hall; their function is tied to this portion of the cave, and none of the three species is present in the outer half of the cave.
This quite nuanced approach persists as we progress into the far end of the Hall of Bears’ Nests in the outer half of the cave (cf. Fig. 1a). Here, still close to the Threshold, we find an extensive panel of mostly red images, including a last gathering of lions and rhinos–all painted in red (Fig. 8). Beginning at this point, the force of the “red” prevails, overriding the “black” essence of the two species. The red coloration results in a softened appearance that is quite different from the grim look of the dark lions and rhinos in the innermost cave. The change of color signals a decisive shift of balance between the agencies of “black” and “red.”
Concurrent with the more benign outlook, the red images of the human hand make their appearance. They are specific to the area that lies just outside the Threshold. These hands–both positive prints and negative stencils–are juxtaposed with the red lions and rhinos, and appear to relate directly to the transformation of these characters as indicated by their warmer hue. In fact, red lions and rhinos are grouped around a field of hands (Fig. 8), which implies a connection between the act of printing the hands and the mellowing of the violent creatures.
As we leave the inner cave and move a little farther into the outer cave, we also witness the increased presence of the bear, and conversely, the phasing-out of the lion. This reversal of roles is captured in the all-red display of a large bear flanked by two smaller lions (Fig. 9). Another panel in the same area shows a large bear above a smaller lion (both figures covered with red dots). These groups prepare for the assured prevalence of the bear in the front of the cave. In Brunel Hall the process of change has left only one lion and no rhinos: our return from visiting the innermost cave has brought us around almost full circle.
In addition to the animal species mentioned above, the cave also features mammoths and ibexes as major motifs. Both are present throughout the cave, but each individual figure reflects the specific character of its location so that they still observe the dualistic program. The mammoth is an inner-cave motif, as the majority of the figures (about sixty-five of some seventy-five) are found behind the Threshold and are painted black (or engraved). Just outside the Threshold, in the panel of the red lions and rhinos, we find a transitory figure in the form of a black mammoth with a red hand-print superimposed on its body, and immediately following this one, an all-red mammoth; thus, the mellowing effect of the “red” agency asserts itself. A few more red specimens are located in the front of the cave. The ibex is an outer-cave motif that, like the mammoth, observes the complementary principle described above: the Descending Gallery has a single, black ibex; Hillaire Hall has half a dozen engraved figures; the outer half of the cave has several red figures.
The horse is a special case in so far as it, more precisely than either the mammoth or the ibex, offers a condensed summary of the cave’s program. An outer-cave motif, the horse is actually distributed fairly evenly throughout the cave, and only the changing appearances of the figures of horses reveal how profoundly they take part in the overall progression of the decorative scheme. In the depths, the horses are overpowered by lions, bison and rhinos (cf. Fig. 2), but in Hillaire Hall they ascend to prominence (cf. Fig. 3, Fig. 4, and Fig. 7). Just outside the Threshold it emerges carrying a red hand-print on its, still black, body (Fig. 11). This figure is situated right next to the above-mentioned black mammoth marked by a red hand-print, and like that one, this horse is on the verge of transformation into its “red” identity. Finally, in Brunel Hall, we find an all-red horse’s head.
Based on a purely formal analysis that avoids interpretation, the above survey demonstrates that the decoration of Chauvet is ruled by the concept of complementary dualism. Only a fraction of the cave’s figures can be discussed here, but the main features of the imagery are well established, and we can confidently state that the decoration exhibits a series of correlated changes, whereby one of the two agents, the “black” or the “red,” gains momentum to the same degree that the other one loses it–although neither totally conquers the other. This pattern is inherently cyclic because we must visit the cave coming from the outside and we must follow the decline of the “red” and growth of the “black” to the end; then we must return, following the regression of the “black” and the progression of the “red.”
“Yin” and “yang” at Chauvet
The complementary dualism traced above is strikingly similar to the well-known concept of yin-and-yang. Though Ice Age art ignores the famous (but historically late) yin-yang symbol of a circle divided by an “S” into a black and a white field, we may plot the individual sections of the cave, each with its distinct decoration, against that ingenious design, albeit using black and red for black and white. Thus, the somber end-section of the Descending Gallery answers to the fullness of the black (yin) field; the decline of the inner-cave motifs in Hillaire Hall equals the narrowing of the black field, while the corresponding increase in outer-cave motifs concurs with the first swelling of the white field. After the Threshold–the point of equilibrium–the inner motifs are overpowered by the outer ones, and in Brunel Hall, the proliferation of luminous images matches the fullness of the white field. We may even consider the single bear in the innermost cave as the equivalent of the white dot in the black field, just as the single lion in the front echoes the black dot in the white field. Those two dots in the emblematic design are, of course, the nuclear representations of either principle, which survive the full expansion of the opposite principle; each is a cell from which the all-but-eliminated agency will eventually regenerate. As the yin-yang sign is cyclic, so is the cave. When we read the decoration first from the entrance to the end, then return, reading from the back to the front, we come full circle from the rule of the “red” to the dominion of the “black” on entering, and vice-versa on leaving.
This scheme is surprising in the context of early cave art, in so far as the yin-yang philosophy is associated with thoughts and beliefs of the Far East where it has ancient roots. The concept may be traced back to funeral imagery of Neolithic China in which the tiger-yin is pitched against the dragon-yang (Cheng-Tih and Zezong 1993). From early Taoist texts we may learn about the developed form of the system and its application to widely varied human activities and natural phenomena whereby it achieves the status of a genuine philosophy. (Granet 1975; Kim 2000).
To judge from the following review of binary themes in the cave, the people of Chauvet had already arrived at an equally accomplished system of thought, one that encompassed the binary categories of winter/summer, female/male, concave/convex, earth/sky, and, even/odd. These are all applications of the yin-yang concept that we recognize among the cornerstones of early Taoist texts. Note that for the sake of convenience, in what follows we shall borrow the terms “yin” and “yang,” though these were certainly not the words used in the European Palaeolithic.
Winter and summer
The yearly sequence of the seasons exposed as the interplay of yin and yang was always an essential topic in Taoism (Granet 1975, 129), with fall and winter being yin, spring and summer yang (Kim 200, Table 4.1). Likewise at Chauvet, the decoration tracks the yearly cycle from summer to winter on entering the cave, and from winter to summer on leaving it. In this trajectory, winter and summer pursue complementary courses, one season waxing as the other one wanes, one reaching its climax as the other one is reduced to a minimal presence.
The contrast of winter and summer is also evident in Chauvet, both in the seasonal connotations of specific motifs and in the narrative that unfolds in the cave at large. First of all, the artists’ black charcoal readily suggests darkness and the cold (it is, actually, burnt-out wood), and the red of the ocher, like fire and blood, relates to light and warmth. In the second place, the animals depicted carry seasonal connotations that match the sequence of the corresponding cave sections. Thus, the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth, both emblematic of the inner cave, were exceptionally well adjusted to the cold of the northern steppes and tundra and therefore inherently associated with winter. The same is largely true of the bison, in particular by comparison with the aurochs, which was much less tolerant of harsh winters, to the effect that the exchange in Hillaire Hall, where aurochs replace bison, evokes the seasonal change from frost to thaw. This shift is the subject of a panel at the opening of the Descending Gallery, which shows a bison and an aurochs arranged in counterpoise, with the former turned toward the descent, the latter toward the hall, so that, symbolically, the bison heads for winter, the aurochs for spring (Fig. 7). The reindeer makes its appearance in this same panel, along with the aurochs (although reindeer are not included in our rendition), and it too recalls the transition from winter to spring, because of the reindeer’s spectacular migrations, which are early harbingers of spring (cf. Chapter VII).
The bear, the predominant animal of the foremost cave, conveys the notion of spring as the time when the animal emerges from hibernation. The images of bears are apparently placed in the front of the cave to suggest the animals’ readiness to exit with the end of winter, and the warm red color of these figures announces the end of the icy season. Physical traces of actual, hibernating bears abound in the cave, with bones and skulls strewn across the floors and innumerable claw marks dug into large areas of walls. These conspicuous marks are evidence of the animals’ re-awakening and restless activity toward winter’s end.
Early Chinese texts proclaim that the yang of spring is manifest when hibernating animals begin to stir, whereas the yin of fall is felt as animals go into hibernation (Granet 1975, 129). From the calendars of archaic cultures we know the practice of naming months and seasons after animals or plants that mark the progression of the year. One example, a circular, carved calendar from the Komi territory of Russia (Konakov 1994), has the image of a bear as emblem of early spring (about March-April), which agrees with the imagery of Chauvet. For early summer (roughly May) the same Komi calendar has a reindeer, which differs from the timing of the reindeer in Hillaire Hall, but only in so far as the calendrical image refers to the early summer calving, whereas the Chauvet paintings rather suggest the early spring migration toward the calving grounds.
Even the red impressions of hands that appear along with the bears just outside the Threshold, are relevant to the change of seasons. Though they are not distinctly time-factored, they evoke the sun, visibly imitating its rays with the fan-shape of the fingers, as in the Homeric “rosy-fingered dawn” (Lacalle Rodriguez 1996, 274). This reading is commensurate with the location, which is the point at which we pass into the red part of the cave, the summer-half, with the progressive strengthening of the sun.
The horse, the sun, and the seasons
The above-mentioned signposts of the seasons are placed in chronological sequence throughout the cave, but spaced intermittently. The element that ties them together in a continuous narrative is the motif of the horse, as beholds the prime image of the sun (cf. Chapter V). Because the year, ultimately, is the life-story of the sun, the sequential changes in the images of horses, from one end of the cave to the other, provide a consistent record of time: one half of the cycle of the year when entering the cave and moving from summer and “yang” to the dominion of winter and “yin”; the other half on leaving the innermost cave and progressing from the rule of winter to the resurgence of summer when back at the entrance.
In the farthest chamber, the “Sacristy,” the two small black horses held captive by a huge lion (Fig. 2) illustrate the endangered situation of the sun at the winter solstice, when “yang” is suppressed by “yin.” However, that moment of extreme darkness, when the sun grinds to a near-halt, is also the crucial turning point at which the cycle of complementary dualism asserts itself. Indeed, the scene captures this dramatic moment by the contrasting appearances of the two horses. The lower, drooping horse is turned toward the back of the cave and portrays the demise of the weak sun and the old year; the upper, more animated horse is turned outward and hints at a renewal.
That first faint sign of renewed energies is picked up by two images of horses on the opposite wall of the “Sacristy.” Here, one horse–dwarfed by yet another large lion–is first painted in black, then outlined in red (LeGuillou 2001). This is noteworthy because of the scant use of red in the inner cave; in fact, the red on the horse in question is the only touch of red in the “Sacristy.” We may see this sparse addition of red on top of black as indicating the beginning revival of the sun, an infusion of new vigor into the stifled solar year. A first attempt to move past the solar nadir is also indicated by the position of this two-colored horse, which is turned toward the outside and appears to be on the verge of leaving the chamber; its muzzle is right at the entrance to the short corridor that connects “Sacristy” with the main gallery. Immediately beyond this horse (still reading the cave from inside out), another horse (all black) takes us the next step forward, because it is shown in the very act of emerging from the other end of the corridor; only its forequarters are actually visible to a spectator in the main gallery outside the “Sacristy” (Fig. 10, in the background). The emergence of the sun-horse from the innermost chamber signals the rebirth of the sun at midwinter.
Still, the worst of winter (roughly January-February) is ahead, and the weakness of the new sun is evident as we continue to move out into the larger chamber with its panoramic show of roaring lions and trampling rhinos. In the middle of this grim frieze, held hostage in a small niche, we find a single horse that is pierced by spears. This is one of only two animal figures in the cave that are expressly wounded, and it is an emphatic illustration of the frail condition of the sun and “yang” against the overwhelming presence of images that spell winter and “yin.”
Thus, the horse does not advance until we reach the end of the frieze of rhinos and lions, where the gallery starts climbing upwards. At this point, the horse as the solar year begins the slow and tenuous ascent from the reign of winter toward spring. This progression is marked off by a handful of horses that are shown moving upwards, step-wise, through the gallery. They aim for Hillaire Hall above, and thus, for early spring.
The first horse in the hall is situated just outside the mouth of the Descending Gallery (Fig. 7). Turning away from the opening, it continues the general move away from the depths, which originated back in the “Sacristy” and which is to be carried to its conclusion in the main panel of Hillaire Hall, aptly named the “Panel of the horses” (Fig. 4). Already a reflection of the friendlier ambience of Hillaire Hall, the first horse (Fig. 7) is painted on a much larger scale than the preceding ones. The key theme of Hillaire Hall, the critical shift in the balance of “yin” and “yang” coincident with the end of winter, also finds expression in the equal sizes of horses and lions in the alcove (Fig. 3) and, most emphatically, in the troupe of horses (Fig. 4) that hover gracefully above two brute rhinos. The latter bang their large horns together with a crashing sound that, incidentally, might evoke the first thunder of spring.
Proceeding into the “red” half of the cave, just beyond the Threshold, we advance into early spring and witness the ascendancy of “yang.” We find this transition aptly illustrated by a horse that is outlined in black, but is marked on its body with a red hand-stencil (Fig. 11). The configuration of the black horse and the red hand speaks of a strengthening of the sun and an end to frost. As in the panel that shows hands together with red lions and rhinos, the superimposition of the hand on the horse also suggests that the active gesture of printing the hand amounts to a quasi-ritual act in support of the agency of “yang.” Correspondingly, the all-red rhinos and lions just outside the Threshold (cf. Fig. 8) no longer possess their imposing, dark and wintry side; their transformed, warmer appearance rather assures us that the forces of winter and “yin” are now on the wane, and that the balance has shifted in favor of “yang.”
Thus prepared for summer, we advance to Brunel Hall, where we find an all-red head of one horse, which is the first definitive image of the spring sun, and following this one, two all-yellow heads of horses (Fig. 12) that finally show us the summer sun in its regained brilliance. These are the only yellow figures in the entire cave, and it would be hard to ignore the implied allusion to the sun’s full recovery, the manifest empowerment of “yang.” Eventually, right next to the cave entrance is a drawing of two mature horses rubbing their necks together (Fig. 13) in a display of pre-mating behavior and a reference to the period of the rut around mid-May. This finishes a continuous journey from the rebirth of the sun in the depth of winter under the spell of “yin,” to its florescence in early summer with the culmination of “yang.”
Female-concave and male-convex
In the context of caves and cave art, it is hardly possible to draw a sharp distinction between the inner parts of the caves and the female sex; both embody the womb, and both are “yin.” At Chauvet, the depths of the cave are characterized not just by images that pertain to darkness and winter as described above, but also by a handful of vulvas that are drawn or painted in the Descending Gallery. These female images are only found here, nowhere outside this quintessential “yin” section. Also, deep fissures or pronounced recesses within caves were generally perceived as emblematic of the earth’s womb (cf. Chapter III) and therefore openings to the realm of “yin.” It is, thus, meaningful that the large alcove in Hillaire Hall is the last stronghold of the wintry characters of the Descending Gallery, with the last group of black lions and the last of the black bison.
The classification of the innermost cave as “yin” and the perception of the inner recesses as female are so inextricably connected, that the cave artists quite literally personified the inner recesses of many caves, marking them with images of female genitalia (for example, in Deux-Ouvertures, Pech-Merle, Gargas, Planchard, Gabillou, Pergouset, Bédeilhac, Montespan, La Magdeleine, or Los Casares). This concept was often taken further still, as the artists designated suitable parts of caves as respectively the uterus, the vagina, and the vulva (for example, in Ker el Massat, as pointed out by Barrière 1990). This is certainly the case in the terminal sections of Chauvet: the “Sacristy” is the uterus, where the horse-sun is marked with the first touch of red, meaning life; the narrow passage from the “Sacristy” into the Descending Gallery is the vagina, or birth canal, through which the horse passes with the rebirth of the sun; the opening of this passage is the vulva. Sure enough, the image of the lower part of a woman’s body, with the vulva strongly accentuated, is painted immediately above this opening (Fig. 10), while other images of vulvas are painted or engraved on the surrounding wall faces.
It bears mentioning–though this can not be verified–that the “Sacristy” contains an engraved sign in the shape of an elongated rectangle that is open at one end (Le Guillou 2001, 21), and which possibly is an ideogram that spells “uterus.” For comparison, the terminal part of Los Casares, just before the closing fissure, has a comparable sign painted in red, which, here too, is followed (reading from inside out) by the image of a vulva (Cabré Aguiló 1934, Nos. 37, 23). A similar sign is painted repeatedly in a tight corridor at the edge of a precipice in La Pileta (Dams 1978. nos. 22-26). In the cave of Roucadour, virtually all of the decoration is assembled inside a gaping fissure, which obviously is female and “yin.” About three dozen rounded signs engraved inside this fissure resemble placentas (although this may not be proved): they are wrapped in multiple membranes and are dented at one point, suggesting the attachment of the umbilical cord. Several vulvas mark the opening of the fissure (Lorblanchet 2010; Coussy 2005). At the ultimate point of the cave of Pech-Merle, a diminutive chamber features natural formations that look like women’s breasts, complete with “nipples.” These were acknowledged by the artists and painted black (Lorblanchet 2010, 203-204).
As concave spaces are “yin,” so convex forms like stalactites and stalagmites are “yang.” This is explicit in the just-mentioned area of Chauvet, where a pending rock formation of vaguely phallic shape, male and “yang,” is thrust into the space of the inner cave, which is “yin” (Fig. 10). As if to confirm this reading, the obtrusive pendant carries the paintings of a female figure–just the lower body with emphasized sex–and a dancer wearing a bison skin and mask, a decidedly male motif and a staple of the cave art tradition. Of course, many caves have concretions that may be perceived as phallic, and many are actually marked with paint to show that the artists saw them as such (notable examples are found in Bédeilhac, Cosquer, Pileta, etc.) In some instances (for example in Cougnac and Portel) stalagmites are included as the penis of a painted human figure. In Cougnac and elsewhere, the ends of suitable stalactites or stalagmites were broken off (and carried away) or they were marked with touches of paint.
The unification of female and male is universally understood to be the natural source of life, but on a deeper level, the Palaeolithic artists believed the generative power of the sexual act to reside in the unification of “yin” and “yang.” The situation at the far end of Los Casares, near the final “uterus” sign of the cave, is again comparable to Chauvet, because the above-mentioned vulva in Casares is being approached by a human, male figure with a grossly oversize erection (Acosta González 2003, 109). In both caves, the topographical setting of the sexual imagery makes clear, that the unity of “yin” and “yang” was understood as the ultimate cause of life-generating powers, both biologically and cosmologically.
In this sense we may also understand the common symbolic act of inserting stone of bone points into cracks or small niches in cave walls (Lorblanchet 1995, 185). The penetrating objects are evidently male and “yang,” the openings in the wall faces are female and “yin,” and the cave is the microsom with which the artists interacted. Equally common is the related symbolic gesture of painting fissures and small recesses with red ocher, both around the openings and inside the hollows. Through these rituals the artists participated in the cosmic play of dual forces; as they imitated the union of the polar opposites, they sought to elicit a blessing of the world at large. This kind of activity was not reserved for decorated caves, but quite frequent in the treatment of mobile art objects as well. The drilled perforations, which are characteristic of bone staffs made from antlers, are typically framed by incision of a regular rhomboid design that emphasizes the significance of the hole as female and “yin.” On many staffs the other end, opposite to the perforation, is carved to a phallic likeness. Such objects openly proclaim the unification of the all-embracing polarity, and they are typically decorated with images that pertain to seasonality and sexuality.
Earth and sky, high and low
The near-universal concept of an earth/sky duality is another stable component of yin-yang philosophy. In Chauvet, as in Ice Age art generally, the theme is represented by the two species of oxen in cave art, the bison representing the earth, the aurochs the sky (cf. Chapters III and IV). These roles reflect morphological differences, as the bison’s large hump lowers its head toward the earth; by contrast, the aurochs head is raised toward the sky (Christensen 1996). We recognize this distinction at Chauvet if we compare an aurochs (Fig. 6) and a bison (Fig. 7), both in Hillaire Hall. Thus, the cosmic attributions are based on another, broadly applied set of yin-yang categories: low versus high.
The distinction between the bison as earth and the aurochs as sky, the former “yin,” the latter “yang,” is illustrated in a prominent panel in Hillaire Hall (Fig. 7). Here the bison and the aurochs clearly are clearly seen as a pair, because they are of equal size and are positioned symmetrically on either side of the panel; as the two oxen are shown moving away from each other, they are also polarized. The specific location of the panel echoes the cosmological implications, for it is painted precisely where the Descending Gallery opens up into the lofty hall. Coming out of the bowels of the earth, a visitor would here enter the sky-world of the upper cave, performing a microcosmic re-enactment of some myth about the primordial separation of the two elements of the macrocosmic world. It is, then, fitting that the bison turns toward the Descending Gallery, that is, toward the depths and “yin,” while the aurochs aims for the outer world and “yang.”
Lascaux presents us with a later rendition of the earth/sky polarity that, while it may look different from the Chauvet example, follows essentially the same model. In Lascaux we have, on one side, the deep Shaft, dominated by the dark figures of a rhino and a bison; on the other side, we have the lofty Rotunda, with the frieze of white aurochs bulls spread out across the shiny vault. This contrast echoes the situation in Chauvet, where the bottom of the Descending Gallery is dominated by the frieze of rhinos, lions, and bison, while Hillaire Hall has its prominent panel of aurochs bulls (Fig. 5). In each cave, a visitor moving between the two sections would follow closely parallel trajectories: in Chauvet, starting in the Descending Gallery, ascending to Hillaire Hall, and emerging next to the panel with the first aurochs bull (Fig. 7); in Lascaux, starting in the Shaft, using a ladder to climb up, crawling through the irregular Passage, and exiting into the Rotunda right under the largest of the white bulls. Across 10-15,000 years, artists projected their image of the world in very similar terms.
Numbers: even and odd
Numerology plays a significant role in Chinese yin-yang theory, whereby even numbers are yin, odd numbers yang. At Chauvet, in a panel of the outer cave, short strokes and dots with obvious numerical significance are juxtaposed with the two yellow horses (Fig. 12). They observe the mentioned principle of Chinese numerology in so far as three red bars accompany one yellow horse that, as the image of the spring-summer sun, is surely “yang.” Likewise, three red strokes mark the first of the red bears (Fig. 9), another eminently “yang” figure.
In fact, not just one group of three strokes, but two such groups of three accompany this bear, and in this it, again, resembles the panel of the yellow horses (Fig. 12), which contains a conspicuous sign that is made up of two sets of three dots. In each case, the marks are arranged in sets of three, and are therefore odd and “yang”; yet, they are also paired and are therefore even and “yin.” The three-times-two sign thus brings together “yin” and “yang” to evoke completion and acknowledge the union of the all-embracing opposites as the source of the new life proclaimed by the horses of summer. This concept of the sources of universal blessings agrees with the above-mentioned unification of the female and male sexes in the imagery of the inner cave (cf. Fig. 10), as well as with the interlocked figures of a male and a female horse in Brunel Hall (Fig. 13).
Already in the era of Chauvet, numerology was a well- established venue for yin-yang-like dualism, and it remained significant, as witnessed by the frequency of double and/or triple marks in later Upper Palaeolithic art. Often we find clouds of double-strokes as, for example, in La Pileta, where they accompany the above-mentioned uterus-like signs, or in Cougnac, where the panels farthest inside the cave indulge in paired marks, meaning “yin,” while the images closest to the cave’s entrance triple dots and strokes, meaning “yang” (Lorblanchet 2010, 253; 264-65). The specific groupings of marks in three-times-two (or, two-times-three) is characteristic of the endpoints of caves, as seen in Lascaux, Gabillou, Pech Merle, Tito Bustillo, Trois-Frères, Fontanet, and Le Portel.
The scope of Upper Palaeolithic thought
The philosophical scheme of Chauvet was clear, functional, and durable enough to remain in use for the extended life of Palaeolithic cave art. More than ten thousand years after Chauvet we recognize the above formulations of the “yin-yang” system in the decoration of Lascaux. Although the imagery of Lascaux is quite different from that of Chauvet, the conceptual base remains valid. Lascaux does not have the mammoths, reindeer, megaceros, or bears of Chauvet; instead the younger cave has numerous red deer, and more horses and aurochs than the old one. However, the different selection of motifs at Lascaux–and the brighter outlook that it reflects–did not erode the underlying philosophy, and a brief survey of the visual narrative of Lascaux will reveal the perseverance of the scheme of Chauvet, not the least in the parallel presentation of the horse as solar and “yang.”
In Lascaux we see seasonal changes articulated by the shifting appearances of horses, from black or dark-brown figures in the inner cave to brightly yellow figures in the outer sections (cf. Chapter V). Hundreds of figures of horses allow for a continual transition from the low and narrow sections, the domain of fall-winter and “yin,” to the wide and lofty regions that belong to spring-summer and “yang.” In the inner sections we find the lions, the single rhinoceros, and the bison; in the outer areas, the aurochs hold sway. This is much like Chauvet, and in traversing Lascaux we witness, as in Chauvet, the plight of the weak horse-sun encircled by lions in a tiny chamber near the far end of the cave. We also encounter the emergence of the revived horse as it rises from the mouth of a tunnel, again reminiscent of Chauvet (the horse emerging from the “Sacristy”). This emerging horse is the reborn sun of the winter solstice, and at Lascaux, the scene is set in the south-eastern corner of the cave where it agrees with the actual direction of mid-winter sunrise.
Lascaux also recalls the dichotomy of colors in Chauvet, though color symbolism in the younger cave is not as plain as in the older one. At Lascaux, the aurochs–the most prominent motif after the horse–projects a clear duality in the distribution of bright and dark figures: half a dozen white bulls and an equal number of red cows dominate the very front of the cave; a single black bull and a handful of black cows are relegated to the inner cave. We also find some transitional images at the end of the Axial Gallery: two red cows and four yellow heads of bulls, all of which are partly visible despite being covered by the body of a black bull; a black cow which carries a large red spot on her body (Aujoulat 2004, 107-08, 116-17).
To represent the female and “yin” of the inner cave versus the male and “yang” of the outer cave, the decoration of Lascaux does not rely on explicit images of the sex organs, but rather on the sexual dimorphism of animal figures or abstract ideograms. An example of the former is the different treatment of the two sexes of the aurochs. Toward the back of the Nave, the largest of the cave’s cows stresses the maternal aspect of the female sex; as the image of the night sky giving birth to the horse-sun (cf. Chapter I), her square, black body proclaims the inner part of the gallery the realm of “yin.” To the contrary, the largest of the white bulls in the Rotunda–the largest painting in all of cave art–is demonstratively male, and it claims the front section as “yang.” Generally, the cows dominate the inner cave sections (the Apse, the Nave, and the end of the Axial Gallery); the bulls prevail in the front, where they are disproportionately larger (three to four times bigger) than the cows. Here the preponderance of “yang” is evident.
The duality of sky and earth is a major theme at Lascaux, one that is inspired by the striking topography of the natural cave with its sky-like, domed and vaulted ceilings, separated by a marked horizontal line from the rough, earth-like base of the walls (Christensen 1996). These features are brought out by the contrast between, on the one side, the aurochs–the white bulls and the red or black cows–that occupy the sky-world of the ceilings, and on the other side, the bison which occupy the earth-like areas, low on the walls or back in the inner, constricted cave sections (cf. Chapter III).
Numerical symbolism at Lascaux is apparent, for example, in the repeated use of the mentioned two-times-three motif, which is found in the depth of the Shaft and at the farthest end of the cave, extreme zones in which the renewal of creation is achieved by the merger of “yin” (the even number two) and “yang” (the odd number three). In Lascaux, as in Chauvet, the image of a horse’s head painted in yellow–a rare color in both caves–is juxtaposed with three vertical strokes (Aujoulat 2004, 182), characterizing the new sun as “yang.” In Lascaux, this yellow horse is placed in an area of the Nave that is rich in numerical symbolism. On the facing wall, the just-mentioned black cow is connected with three carefully engraved and painted square signs, each of which articulates the even number four by its four corners, while the group indicates the odd number three. These remarkable signs are touched by the cow’s tail and hind hoofs, and the position under the celestial aurochs fits an ideogram that denotes the earth with its four corners. One of the squares is pierced by six arrows which are arranged in two groups of three (Aujoulat 2004, 176), which is yet another example of the two-times-three sign for the fusion of “yin” and “yang,” here used to relate two sets of observations: the rebirth of the sun from the womb of the night sky, and the rise of the sun from the earth. The association of the numerical three and four, odd and even, formulated by the three square signs, is repeated in the neighboring panel, a prominent frieze of seven ibexes’ heads that are clearly divided into two groups (Aujoulat 2004, 162): one of four black heads, and one of three red heads–a group that is even, dark, and “yin,” and a group that is odd, light, and “yang.”
Several dozen square or rectangular signs are a characteristic and visible feature of Lascaux. Virtually all are far from the entrance, most are in abscessed areas, and many are placed low on the walls; certainly they are associated with the earth and are “yin.” Thus, none are in the domed Rotunda with the sky-related aurochs bulls; to the contrary, most are in the Apse, clustering at the descent to the Shaft. Their strong presence in Lascaux must serve to balance the dual cosmic principles in a cave that is, itself, predominantly “yang” both by its bright, expansive appearance and by its serene decoration, which is dominated by the “yang” motifs: horse, aurochs, stag, and ibex. Chauvet, quite to the contrary, has almost no “yin” signs, but hundreds of “yang” signs, mainly in the form of fields of dots and hands that have no match in Lascaux. At Chauvet, these signs were apparently felt needed in order to counterbalance the eroded, incrustated character of a cave that is itself heavily “yin” and decorated with a preponderance of matching motifs: lions, rhinos, mammoths, and bison (this side of Chauvet is brought out well in Werner Herzog’s film documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams). In designing a scheme for the decoration of a cave, the artists responded to the character of the site with art works that reflected the given features, but in so doing they would use numerical signs and ideograms to maintain a felicitous equivalence of the two ruling principles and to articulate the drama of their narrative.
Very similar visual conventions prevailed to the end of the era of cave art. Altamira, which was mainly decorated thousands of years after Lascaux, is divided by color distinction into an inner “black” half, and an outer “red” half. Certain motifs sustain this scheme, as the black signs in the back portion are another type than the red signs in the front. In this cave too, the seasonal theme is carried along by changes in the figures of horses. Thus, the back corridor features a black horse which is drastically wounded, while the great ceiling near the front displays vigorously jumping, red horses which are accompanied by red hand-prints (Freeman and González Echegaray 2001, 39-40, 49). These configurations readily recall the, perhaps twenty thousand years older, imagery at Chauvet.
We may sum up this investigation of cogent ideas in cave art with the statement that the cave artists, at least since Chauvet, charted the progressive events of a seasonal narrative with the help of an over-arching philosophical principle. Such a level of complexity would hardly be comprehensible without an appreciation of images and visual signs and a recognition of their potential for shaping and maintaining thoughts within a pre-literate culture. Of course, a script–even a pictographic one–may allow for developments that are otherwise not feasible, and the lack of writing probably explains why the people of Lascaux still relied on an artistic tradition that was explicitly stated already in the age of Chauvet, more than ten thousand years earlier. Though less specific than a writing system, the visual language of Palaeolithic art still allowed the artists to keep their verbal lore focused on certain basic concepts. Thus the image of a horse would be universally understood as a representation of the sun, the solar year, and “yang.” Moreover, the finer details of particular stories and rituals would be recognized from the visual cues in the portrayal of any given horse, be it sexually or seasonally determined, animated or immobile, horizontal or tilted, stylistically exuberant or generic; each detail carried a message that would be comprehensible.
We must credit the artists of the caves with the ability to form abstract ideas, to articulate them verbally and visually, and to adjust ideas and images to match changes in climate and fauna. They maintained the basic principles of a yin-yang-type philosophy, and they scrutinized natural phenomena to obtain functional classifications. If measured against strict scientific criteria, their approach may be deemed arbitrary, but in the context of Upper Palaeolithic cultures, it was possibly a necessary step towards a synthesis of knowledge. We may even recognize a rudimentary proto-scientific mind-set in the application of the philosophical system to calendrical and astronomical observations (cf. Chapter XI).
Historical perspective on Palaeolithic philosophy
Complementary dualism plays the ephemeral role of an under-current in the history of Western philosophy. Dynastic Egypt still maintained a rudimentary concept of the unity of contrasts in the institution of the “Two Lands,” dramatized by the perpetual struggle of the incomparable deities, Seth and Horus. Thus, dualism permeated speculations and rituals that remained central to Egyptian religion at large (McCarter 2011, 21). In European thought, elements of a genuine binary system survived in some Pythagorean schemes, notably in Empedocles’ cosmic balance of “love” and “hate,” but in these systems the contrast between light and dark tended toward the absolutes of ethical imperatives rather than the mutable phases of decay and regeneration manifest in seasonal cycles (Miller 2011, 125; McCarter 2011, 20). Perhaps the most recognizable exhibit of prehistoric concepts was the Pythagoreans’ numerology, according to which even numbers were “unlimited” (that is, chaotic) and female, while odd numbers were “limited” (that is, ordered) and male (Burkert 1972, 34, 51, 468-75). Prehistoric symbolism seems to echo in the Alchemists’ imaginary transition from “nigredo” (black) and death to “rubedo” (red) and life (Eliade 1962, 162).
More authentic residues of Upper Palaeolithic dualism might be found in folklore from the geographical region in which the Ice Age caves are located. Indigenous farming cultures, with their mock battles between “Winter” and “Summer,” their bonfires, May-Poles, fertility rocks, and so forth, possibly preserved beliefs from well before the “Neolithic Revolution.” Thus the Basque province of La Soule maintains a spring masquerade with performances by two troupes, one called “black” (les Noirs), the other “red” (les Rouges), the former representing rude chaos, the latter civility and order. In this context, the participation of a bear in the traditional parade seems to vouch for the deep roots of the rite (Violet 1928).
In most cases, however, ethnographic comparisons do not yield convincing parallels to the cogent system of ideas represented at Chauvet. Binary principles may be near-universal among archaic cultures, yet nowhere do they appear to be applied with the persistent rigor of the caves’ programs. For example, the Khanty of western Siberia perceived the seasonal rhythm as a conflict between two competing forces: during summer, the earth was dominated by the “Spirits of the Above,” during winter, by the “Spirits of the Below” (Golovnev 1994, 63-64); the concept is dualistic, but apparently not complementary. Native peoples of the North American prairies united geography, calendar, cosmology, and social structures in schemes like the Sioux’ and Osages’ ceremonial camp circles. These were divided into half-circles to reflect the polarities of sky and earth, summer and winter, as well as the duality of the tribal moieties (Müller 1962, 570). Even so, such schemes project rigid divisions rather than the subtly balanced transitions that characterize the Oriental yin-yang system and, as demonstrated above, the decoration of Chauvet.
Strange as it may seem, the yin-yang philosophy of the Far East may be closer to the conceptual system of Ice Age art than any historical European tradition or recorded archaic lore. Theoretically, the diffusion of this conceptional system could have predated the settlement of homo sapiens in southern and western Europe (about fifty thousand years ago) in the course of the exodus “out of Africa.” Alternatively, a later migration of peoples and ideas across Eurasia, from west to east, could account for the puzzling connection. We are not yet prepared to resolve this issue.
PART TWO: EMBLEMS AND IDEOGRAMS OF DUALISM
Part One of this study recognizes the Ice Age artists’ complementary dualism as a mind-set that permeates cave decorations at large, unfolding through a sequence of narrative scenes. As this pattern of thought apparently embraced all aspects of human life and thought–sexuality, seasonality, cosmology, numerology, even astronomy (cf. Chapter XI)–we may assume that the artists also stated their philosophical concepts in less cumbersome ways than through programs for entire caves; we may, for example, expect to find compositions with two contrasting animal characters as short-hand statements of the two grand principles; or we may find purely abstract signs to match the theoretical nature of philosophical thoughts. Though the artists lacked writing, they possessed a comprehensive visual sign language, and some of the numerous non-figurative ideograms in the caves were quite likely vehicles for conceptual statements–interpretive thinking in graphic form.
Although the Palaeolithic brand of dualism is profoundly similar to the yin-yang concept of some East Asian schools of philosophy, we may not find Palaeolithic ideograms that resemble the universally recognized yin-yang symbol of an “S” inscribed in a circle (Fig. 14). This Taoist symbol is a relatively recent design, possibly rooted in the inter-locking swirls on Neolithic ceramics but certainly post-dating the Palaeolithic era. In Ice Age art we find only such approximations as a painted sign in the Spanish cave of Courdón (Fig. 15), an oval produced by two symmetrical halves, of which one is red, the other black. While this scheme does suggest two contrasting principles united in cyclic rotation (suggestive of the waning and waxing moon sickles), this sign lacks the refinements of the historical Chinese ideogram, which not only demonstrates the reciprocal swelling and deflation of the black and the white sides, but which also articulates the concept of one agency inserted as a seed in the bosom of the other one (the white dot in the black field and vice-versa).
Figuration and abstraction
The sophisticated Taoist symbol is the end result of a long history of tentative yin-yang schemes, and earlier steps in this development may provide more fitting parallels for Palaeolithic practices. Going back to Far Eastern, proto-historic sources, the evidence includes both figurative animal symbolism and intricate diagrams, the latter combined with numerical marks. Apparently, the earliest certain illustration of the yin-yang principle is found in a Chinese Neolithic tomb in Xishuipo (grave “M 45″) and shows the two contrasting characters of the tiger (yin) and the dragon (yang) symmetrically flanking the buried person.
Such a use of paired-but-opposed animal figures to represent the idea of dualism reverberates with a common procedure in Ice Age art, where animal motifs of contrasting nature were repeatedly placed in opposition to each other in compositions of bold, tightly knit–almost heraldic–designs. The bison/horse theme is, for sure, the most common example, with the bison on the earth/netherworld side and the horse on the sun/upper-world side. Also quite common are configurations of bison and female deer, a contrast of heavy and bulky versus light and slim, recognized, for example, in the strictly parallel arrangements on the two sides of a bone blade from La Vache (Fig. 38).
Considering the tiger/yin image, we find similarly dramatic formulations in Ice Age pictures that pose beasts of prey (mainly lions) as exponents of death and the netherworld. The flamboyant dragon may not be a fixture of Palaeolithic art, but other animals–mostly stags with exuberant antlers–take its place and adopt many of its associations with fire, waters, and vegetation (cf. Chapter VI); thus, a recurrent configuration features a carnivore and a stag, claws and hoofs. In the cave of Altxerri (Fig. 16), the strict composition of a fox, turned inward/downward, and a reindeer, directed outward/upward, clearly makes the arctic fox stand for winter, death, and netherworld, while the migrant reindeer, is used to suggest summer, life, and upper-world. We find a similar group in Lascaux (Fig. 55 a), here with a small lion and a large deer. A similar confrontation occurs, with the balance now reversed, in Chauvet, where a fragile reindeer strives to escape a gathering of huge lions (Chauvet 1996, 114). The situation with the lion ruling the back of a cave and the deer poised to escape recurs, for example, in Font-de-Gaume and Gabillou.
Like the tiger/dragon theme within its cultural matrix, the predator/deer combination of the Palaeolithic era was a readily understood trope, one that was readily perceived even on small-scale objects, as exemplified by an engraved bone from Lorthet (Fig. 17). Several near-identical formulations from different locations (cf. Graziosi 1960, plate 90) suggest that the theme was popular and its conceptual implications readily perceived.
Combining such visual entities, chosen from a limited repertory, the artists were able to illustrate the contrasts, shifting balances, and transitional phases assumed by the concept of complementary dualism. For an example of the complexity that could be achieved with just a few themes, we may consider the above-mentioned panel in the Hillaire Hall of Chauvet (Fig. 7) in which three standard themes produce a nuanced description of seasonal change. In the first place, the bison/aurochs trope (Fig. 7, right and left) recalls the creation of the cosmos with the separation of earth and sky. In the second place, the bison/horse theme (Fig. 7, right and top) shows that the dominance of earth and darkness is yielding to the dominance of sun and light. In the third place, a handful of red deer add movement and urgency to the change of seasons: as they cross each other (Fig. 7, center), we see then in a moment of equivocation–pending the shift of balance between “yin” and “yang”–preceding their decision to follow the aurochs and move toward summer (while two hardier reindeer still turn toward winter and “yin”).
The Chauvet panel describes a quite subtle development by means of coded iconographic tropes, but without recourse to abstraction. In other situations, however, artists needed non-figurative signs to address even more complex issues (this is also true of the artists of Chauvet, as discussed below). Abstract ideograms became essential tools to the artists when facing numinous powers in the depths of caves, and when articulating philosophical principles behind visual programs. The presence of, sometimes elaborate, abstract signs in many caves indicates these concerns, particularly when the signs are accumulated at locations that approach the innermost reaches of caves: at niches, alcoves and similar recesses, in low areas of cave systems, or at the very end of galleries. Ideograms of this category have been called “geometric,” but they are more appropriately viewed as a type of mandalas due to their regular, shapely outlines and their inner subdivisions through well-defined lines or files of dots. Though the latter often suggest numerical symbolism, the focus is on cosmology, not geometry. We may suspect that these ideograms address the elusive powers that the artists felt to be present in the caves, and we may hypothesize that the signs capture the essence of those powers, beyond what is reflected in the narrative (seasonal) scenes discussed in Part One. Accounting for these numinous forces that even preceded original creation, would call for extraordinary artistic designs. In short, we hypothesize that this body of austere signs was the closest the artists came to stating basic principles of their philosophy in the form of visualized theory.
The large ideograms in the Castillo cave
Several of the (four) decorated caves in Mount Castillo contain noticeable concentrations of mandala-like signs that may well articulate the principles of a cosmic-scale duality. We shall begin our discussion with these signs and similar ideograms in other caves of northern Spain; subsequently, we shall address comparable, but stylistically different, ideograms in French caves.
The Castillo cave itself holds a striking accumulation of red painted mandalas, located in a low-lying section of the cave and concentrating around a small alcove-like recess called the Corner of Tectiforms. This area is dedicated to about a dozen of these sizeable signs (partially shown in Fig. 19 a, b). Initially we shall focus on one conspicuous sign (Fig. 18 a) that, though slightly on the periphery of this gathering, seems to summarize the prevalent message, partly because the sign’s superior size, partly because its appearance as the center-piece of a panel that dominates the corridor, just outside the alcove (at A on the plan, Fig. 20 a, where the compact group of signs is at B).
The large, non-figurative sign (Fig. 18 a) is juxtaposed with representational figures, so that the narrative contents of the latter provide a welcome clue to the aloof function of the former. Two horses are placed around the sign, one on either side in an explicitly antithetic arrangement, which is the more interesting as the horses visibly make a study in contrasts. In light of the well-documented role of the horse as the image of the solar year (cf. Chapter V) we may see this configuration as the representation of the two halves of the year. Three features indicate that the horse on the right (Fig. 18 a) stands for the sun in the fall half of the year: first, it is turned inward, toward the back of the gallery; second, the figure adopts a sloping position at the very bottom of the wall, with its neck lowered and the muzzle directly at floor level (even the ears are shown as drooping); and third, the animal’s body is marked with three large and visible wounds (and blood flows from the nostrils), emphasizing the association with winter and the demise of the solar year. By contrast, the left-hand horse suggests the spring half of the year for the direct opposite reasons: it is turned outward, toward the front of the cave; it is situated high up, on a section of the wall that is suspended from the ceiling; and, it carries along a small female deer that, in its own right, is an image of the spring-summer revival of nature’s life and the fertility of life on earth (cf. Chapter VII).
Because the large red sign constitutes the pivotal axis between the two images of winter and summer, we may fairly hypothesize that it conveys a message about seasonal change, articulating a principle that rules seasonal transformation. In fact, the sign makes a striking presence that may well agree with such a guiding or rule-setting function. Located in a low, rough and inhospitable corridor (ultimately obstructed by an ancient collapse), the large and lucid sign with its neatly drawn, quasi-geometric appearance stands out as a distinct testimony to a specifically human concept of order, one that is essentially different from the natural disorder of the cave world as exemplified by the roughness of the low, collapsing corridor. The sign also differs essentially from the associated figurative art, that is, from the images of animals with their circumstantial–biological and temperamental–characteristics; these too reflect an underlying order, but only the abstract sign endeavors to explain the inner workings of that order.
In addition to the surrounding images, the topographic setting of the Castillo sign is crucial to an understanding. Thus, the orientation of the sign’s symmetrical wings, flanking the central section, relates to the cave at large, as the left one extends toward the inner cave, the right one toward the outside; one relates to the under-world and winter, the other to the upper-world and summer. The concordance with the two horses confirms the reading of the two horns of the ideogram as winter (innermost, left) and summer (outermost, right). This, in turn, may explain why each segment is bordered (toward the center) by a vertical band that is sectioned into six spaces, supposedly standing for the number of months in each half-year. We may assume that the sign’s middle section relates to spring and/or fall, depending on the direction in which it is read.
Inevitably, the broad outline of the horned sign also evokes the moon, particularly due to the precision of the curved points, left and right. We may even assume that the innermost, left-hand horn relates to the waning moon (convex toward the left) while the outermost, right-hand horn is affiliated with the waxing moon (convex to the right). Another, generally comparable, sign in the same cave (Fig. 18 c) is more explicit still in representing the phases of the moon, with its waning and waxing (the outer segments) and its full phase (the center). These signs refer to the moon as the celestial model of the universal law of waning and waxing, which is relevant to the solar horse and the year, as well as to the rhythm of the female womb–of which the moon is the ruler, and which is implied by the presence of the doe (Fig. 18 a, left).
By itself, the lunar cycle of growth and decline involves no more than a succession of categorical opposites (like in the sign from Courdón, Fig. 15), but the Castillo ideogram subtly adds the median segment that serves as the point of transformation–or field of transition–where, according to the concept of complementary dualism, the two agencies momentarily arrive at a stage of balance, as their relative dominance shifts. This middle segment divides the sign into three parts, which is a characteristic of all major signs in the cave, and it is this triple form that allows the artists to visually represent the intricate concept of a complementary alternation of binary agents. Although their formulation lacks the fluid transition from one principle to the other, as captured by the historical yin-yang sign (Fig. 14), the tripartite design has the advantage of pinpointing a fixed area wherein a balance prevails. The Castillo signs’s distinct profile with the pointed top (Fig. 18 a) sets off the center field as the transitional season of the spring, just as the low-dipping bottom of the center field marks that part as the season of the fall. The central section is not actually divided into an upper and a lower part, but such a division seems to be implicitly understood, given that longitudinal lines do separate an upper and a lower segment in a number of other signs in the Corner of Tectiforms (cf. Fig. 19 a).
It seems that the artists intended our ideogram to expose the laws of time, identified as a continuum of inter-locking winter-halves and summer-halves, with spring and fall as transitional phases (cf. Fig. 18 b). The sign is, however, a genuine cosmogram that also demonstrates the ordering of space, with an earth/netherworld tier and a sky/upper-world tier (cf. Fig. 18 b); again, this aspect agrees with the positions of the two horses, one low down and earth-bound, the other high up and sky-bound.
The basic elements of the just-mentioned sign recur, albeit with variations, in the adjacent cluster of similar signs at the Corner of Tectiforms (Fig. 19 a). Some of these are as precise and elaborate as the above sign, but others are mere sketches; as they are painted in different shades of red and yellow ocher, it appears that they were executed over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the basic scheme was retained, and we may assume that the same, perennial philosophy underlies all. In a few cases the moon-sickle shape is openly suggested, but in others this allusion is barely perceptible (as in the example shown in Fig. 19 b), yet we may take it for granted that the lunar model of waning and waxing is implied by the three-part form that remains a unifying feature.
A group of similar signs in Altamira (Fig. 30) confirms the lunar sub-text of this entire category of signs. Notably, the three signs collated on the left (Fig. 30, at the top) jointly convey the appearances of the moon in its waxing, full, and waning phases. Even though the central sign is not sickle-shaped at all (but symmetrical along two axes), the ones on either side are shaped as half-moons and are turned in opposite directions to evoke waxing (right) and waning (left). These three signs convene into a unit that recalls the above-mentioned Castillo sign (Fig. 18 c). Division into three segments is a characteristic of mandala-like signs devoted to complementary dualism, but details vary enough to accommodate individual episodes of a story of creation, including the lay-out of space, the establishment of a world center, the regulation of time, and, the separation of the living and the dead. Returning to Castillo’s Corner of Tectiforms we may gauge this variability by comparing the moon-shaped sign discussed above (Fig. 18 a) with a rather similar sign (Fig. 19 b). Both feature three main sections, and both have vertical bars that are divided into six spaces to suggest a year of two-times-six months. Yet, they differ significantly in their overall contours, as one is moon-like, the other not, one has horn-like extensions, the other a compact structure. In fact, the latter has a convex “roof” and suggests a hut-like cosmic model with a flat earth base and an arched sky dome. We may say that the former sign is focused on the organization of time, while the latter is focused on the structure of space, but that both, still, embrace the totality of creation.
It is quite possible that the two figures of horses in the corridor (Fig. 18 a) could, on their own, quite adequately illustrate the waning and waxing of the year and suggest the contrast of the upper and nether worlds; what the prominent ideogram contributes, however, is a representation of the general principle that sustains the course of time and the structure of space. In order to further promote that essential principle, the artists went on to accumulate such signs in a sort of artistic ritual. In the Corner of Tectiforms, the body of painted signs start in the ceiling toward the back of the large niche, at a point where the artists had to lie on their backs to paint, and from there the ensemble extends outward with a concentration on the wall that is partly inside/partly outside the niche (at A in Fig. 20 a). A bit further out in the corridor we find the large curved sign (at B). Finally, a smaller cluster of comparable signs (including our Fig. 20 b) is located on the way out of, and up from, the low corridor (at D in Fig. 20 a). From this pattern of distribution we deduce that the niche in the Corner of Tectiforms, was the epicenter of forces that the artists sought to release: located at a low level of the cave system, a cleavage into the bosom of the earth, the niche was a point of contact with primordial powers and assumed the sacred ambience of a sacristy or apsidiole–the natural setting for symbols of ultimate causes.
Beyond the low gallery’s scene of the death and revival of the horse/sun (Fig. 18 a), the artists traced the perceived release of powers in consequent decorations along the path to the outside world. Moving toward the exit and climbing up the modern stairs leading to the vestibule, we pass (at F in Fig. 20 a) a very large, red painting of a horse (Fig. 21 b). Its size, color, and energetic posture, which combines upward- and outward-directed movements, makes this image a fit demonstration of the ascending spring/summer sun. Preceding the horse, a bit lower (Fig. 21 b, left), a bison is shown in a vertical position with its head downwards, so that the opposite directions of the two sequential figures argue for a shift in balance: the earth-/netherworld-principle of the bison recedes and yields supremacy to the sky-/sun-principle of the horse. Our reading of the signs accumulated below, thus, carry over into the subsequent development of the cave’s program.
By the same token, the theme of the doe’s sojourn to the netherworld (cf. Fig. 18 a, top left) is brought to its resolution with the display further out (at E in Fig. 20 a) of two red does rising above the back of a black bison, on the brink of returning to the upper world (Fig. 21 a), the sky-related agency of the doe overcoming the earth-related agency of the bison. This composition (a reliable trope of cave art) also testifies to the revival of life on earth, because the humped back of the bison, in a very physical sense, signifies the surface of the earth. This is, for sure, a major theme in Spanish caves, and one that we encounter repeatedly in France, as well; a theme that is exposed even on portable objects. For example, this configuration occupies the two sides of a decorated bone spatula from La Vache (Fig. 38, a and b), where parallel compositions balance the two principles: the doe on the recto belongs to spring-summer and brings sprouts and blooming flowers; the bison on the verso belongs to fall-winter and brings evergreens and cones with seeds.
Castillo’s triple-sectioned signs may look quite different from the East Asian “S”-curved yin-yang symbol (Fig. 14), but both types are in the final analysis found to be mandala-like cosmograms that prescribe integral cycles of dual opposites. In at least one variation of the Palaeolithic model, we even find a feature that approximates the notorious black dot/white dot design of the historical symbol. This occurs in a version painted in Pasiega (another sanctuary in the Castillo mountain). In this case (see B, Fig. 26) the upper and the lower of the three sections each contains half of a small, schematic animal figure: the lower section (likely related to earth, winter, and “yin”) holds the forequarters of a schematic animal figure, suggesting the emergence of life; the upper section (likely the area of sky, summer, and “yang”) holds the rear half of an equally schematic animal, suggesting the disappearance of life. In its own way, this play on contrasts parallels the black field/white dot versus white field/black dot design.
The ideograms of Pasiega, Gallery A
The four cave sanctuaries of Mount Castillo jointly feature an impressive array of distinct ideograms, and Pasiega, while sharing some designs with the Castillo cave, presents several ensembles of mandalas of its own type. In the narrow corridor at the end of Pasiega’s main gallery (at A on the plan, Fig. 23 a) we find a long frieze that astonishes by the fact that the innermost half of the frieze is composed entirely of abstract signs. Consequently, the main character of the frieze, an elaborate horse (Fig. 22 a, center), does not occur before more than a dozen varied signs have been called upon to prepare for its appearance. We may see these signs as a means of showing successive stages in a process that precedes the (re)creation of the horse/sun and the beginning of the solar year.
The sequence starts in the farthest accessible part of the narrow end-corridor (cf. Fig. 23 a), at the point where it contracts into a mere fissure (another natural “Mother Earth” vagina; see photo in Groenen 2015, 87), as far inside the cleavage as the artists could work without rubbing their noses in the paint. This is certainly an earth-dominated (“yin”) location. The first two signs back here (Fig. 22 b) are distinct within the frieze by their uniform in-filling and, particularly, by their evenly rounded, un-broken outlines. In a cosmic perspective, we may see this as a rendition of the world at an early stage of creation, preceding the separation of earth and sky, before the differentiation of winter and summer; this is the appearance of the as-yet undeveloped world/year, still a pupa-like capsule. The artists here caught a moment of creation that apparently was approachable only in the innermost reaches of the cave.
The following group of signs, then, shows the beginning of the division prescribed by the dualistic philosophy. Thus, another homogeneously striated sign (which adds the horizontal dimension) now sprouts a small outgrowth from the very center of its upper side (Fig. 22 c); this ruptures the solid outline and is the first manifestation of the dual qualities of the two sides that is to become a prominent feature of following signs (Fig. 22 c, d, e). That this, at first, is a strenuous process may be deduced from the tortuous shape of one sign (Fig. 22 c, at the bottom).
The spiked out-growth from one side, which takes hold as we progress, is the key feature that distinguishes the sky/male/”yang” side of the ideograms from the perpetually closed-up side, which is earth/female/”yin” related. Occasionally, the spikes take the form of a plant-like growth (Fig. 22 c, left), which may suggest that the season of spring is implied, as we argued above, regarding the pointed peak of the Castillo sign (cf. Fig. 18 b), but these appendixes are, typically, non-figurative projections; essentially, they are emblematic of the concept that the sky-world is open while the earth-world is closed. Early Chinese textual sources name the contrast between what is “closed” and what is “open” as one of the basic distinctions between yin and yang, on a par with the more familiar cosmic, sexual, and seasonal dualities (Granet 1975, 121-22, 140). A closer look at the Pasiega evidence will confirm, that these two categories are relevant for Ice Age art as well.
As we progress through the Pasiega panel (Fig. 22 d, e), the protruding element plays a significant part in making a stronger contrast between the profiles of the two sides of a sign, to the effect that they more clearly articulate the dual principles of earth-powers and sky-powers. This concurs with references to the moon, as the signs take on a discrete but certain sickle-shape, that evidently bears on the alternatingly waning and waxing states of the dual powers according to the principle of complementary dualism. In one case (Fig. 22 d, to the right) the “yang” side is a notched band with twenty-nine spaces–almost certainly a lunar count.
The frieze also includes a triple-sectioned sign of the Castillo cave type (Fig. 22 f) that again comes with a “lunar” count, here in the form of twenty-eight meshes in a net-like design. Affixed to a sickle-shape, which itself is juxtaposed with a female genital triangle (Fig. 22 f, to the left), the twenty-eight day count likely pertains to the menstrual cycle. We are reminded that the grand dualism called forth by the artists’ mandalas, bear on the gestation of life as well as on the rhythm of the cosmos (netting, like weaving, seems to be a universal metaphor for creation).
At this point of the frieze the stage is finally set for the appearance of the horse (Fig. 22 e), but the continuity with what has preceded remains noticeable, as some signs are shown as virtually pushing and lifting the horse out of the inner cave. One tilted sign is connected with its tail, cutting the solar animal’s ties to winter and netherworld (the conventional role of the horse’s tail). A horizontal sign on the horse’s body has an arched top and three projecting verticals, implying notions about the world center and the lifting of the sky. Other signs are placed at the horse’s legs to assist its motion ahead. Overwhelmingly, this horse projects the sky-related qualities of the reborn sun and the freshly established solar year: it is a vigorous male that bursts out of the inner cave with lots of energy, its bristling mane recalling the rays of the sun.
We are, however, still in the inner cave, and the horse faces a bison of equal size (Fig. 22 a) but turned in the opposite direction, back toward the innermost fissure. Thus, the released force of the sky-realm faces the enclosing force of the earth, the latter blocking the advance of the former. The three-part sign above the bison is there to tell us of the perpetual tribulations of this conflict, the inherent logic of the procedure. While the actual shift of the balance between the dual principles eventually is recognized in the decoration of the outer part of Gallery A, we already notice an opening gesture in the form of a painted mandala which is located right above the port-like passage to the outer, wider part of Gallery A (at C, Fig. 23 a). This sign is subtly shaped to fit the arch of the opening itself (Fig. 23 b, left), to the effect that the precise location suggests a symbolic act of opening up the passage–a gesture that the horse (Fig. 23 b) appears ready to heed.
The sign above the passage-way sums up the achievement of the longer frieze on the facing wall. More completely than the preceding ideograms, it poses as a ready model of the structured cosmos: the extended verticals in the center protrude above the roof section, just as the poles of a hut or tent extend through the smoke-hole; the structure combines the confining earth-realm (the floor) and the expansive sky-realm (the roof), the two principles joined in harmony.
To the list of shared elements in the caves of Pasiega and Castillo, we may, again, add the role of the female deer as the emblematic image of life renewal. In Pasiega the wall opposite to the just-discussed frieze of signs (at B, Fig. 23 a) shows a large horse that is moving toward the outer cave while carrying along a small doe (Fig. 23 b, right); a configuration that is quite similar to the horse-and-small doe in Castillo (Fig. 18 a). In each case, the narrative/symbolic implication is the reliance of the fragile female deer on the solar horse to escape the realm of earth-dominance; the doe will be released when the horse opens the path to the resurrection of the summer-half of the year.
In Pasiega, this particular theme is treated in greater detail in the decoration around the niche that occupies one end of the terminal corridor (at D in Fig. 23 a). Inside this recess, which is too small to enter easily, we find a doe that is turned directly downwards with its neck dramatically stuck in a painted sign, as if the creature was tumbling into a trap (Fig. 24 a). The particular sign (which somewhat resembles a mouth with clenched teeth) is closed like the mentioned ones at the far end of the above-discussed frieze (Fig. 22 b), and like those it brings us back into the absorbing sphere of the earth/netherworld. In the back of the niche, a horse (Fig. 24 b) appears, once again, to come to the rescue of the doe, and the prospect of success is helped by the moon-shaped signs that garner this horse, and still more so, by the characteristic Pasiega sign on the right-hand wall of the niche (opposite to the doe): this ideogram shows a distinct projection of its central axis–like the projections on the sky-related side of the above signs–an signal for the opening up of a closed world. This proposes the release of the doe, which eventually occurs beyond the terminal corridor, in Gallery A (at E, Fig. 23 a); here, an energetic, animated doe jumps ahead, seemingly drawn toward–even, pointing to, gesturing toward–a final “open” sign (Fig. 24 e). This one is the outermost of all the mandala-like ideograms that crowd the back of Gallery A, and therefore an indication that their objective has been accomplished.
From being swallowed up by the earth (in the niche), to freely jumping ahead, the doe’s story summarizes the achievement of the entire ensemble of the inner cave. Leaving behind the narrow corridor and entering the spacious gallery we find ample evidence of the shift of balance between the dual forces. The earthy bison is barely a presence here, whereas a number of celestial aurochs suddenly appear, painted just beyond the passage-way (Breuil’s # 40, 28, 27, 20), while figures of stags proliferate throughout (# 41, 28, 26, 19, 18, 11, 6, 3), all demonstrating the establishment of the sky powers. The sun now comes to its own, as some large horses are placed in the vaulted ceiling or are shown on the move (# 44, 15). Placed across from the just-mentioned jumping doe (Fig. 24 e), a horse is the center of a panel, in which it is surrounded by half a dozen red does (Fig. 25). This horse is the cave’s only polychrome (or rather, carefully modelled) figure, and its glorified appearance may well express the artists’ delight in the full restoration of the sun with the exultation of the sky-world. A rectangle at the front hoof of the horse vividly states the theme of the warming of the earth by its unusual yellow color. Everything is emblematic of the recaptured dominance of the sky-/summer-side of creation.
Pasiega’s Gallery C: the Crypt
Within the complex cave of Pasiega we find a second gathering of mandalas in the sector called Gallery C, which is separated from Gallery A by a labyrinthine cave section, complete with a dangerous pit. Gallery C itself is a perplexing chamber that, on one side, is dominated by a massive bison figure (at F in Fig. 26), while the other side is focused on a semi-enclosed alcove that also holds a bison image (in the shape of a man with a bison’s head; see E in Fig. 26). Gallery C is quite obviously ruled by the earth/netherworld principle.
The handful of large signs found in this area are all associated with the mentioned alcove, a mysterious location that we shall call the Crypt. It is a secluded space, the size of a walk-in closet, set off from the Gallery, not by a wall as much as by a virtual colonnade composed of actual columns and large stalactites. From the Gallery one may peek into the small, capricious chamber by way of several narrow gaps (one or two allowing for passage). This strange enclosure must have fascinated even the earliest explorers of the cave, considering that one large sign painted here (our Fig. 26, B) has been dated to the era of the Neanderthals.
Inside the Crypt we find–vis-à-vis the mentioned bison-mask–a complex panel that is focused on a red horse’s head and several painted and engraved does (Fig. 26, A). The ensemble is reminiscent of the groupings of horse and doe in Pasiega A (Fig. 23 b, and Fig. 24 a, b) and in the Castillo cave (Fig. 18 a), and like in those cases, the crucial event is the rebirth of the solar horse, which, here too, is suggested by way of a moon sickle (dotted) with its promise of renewal (Fig. 26, A). The revival of the horse/sun–as we have seen in Gallery A–is an essential condition for the end of winter and for the release of the doe from the netherworld, and thus, the restoration of the worlds fecundity.
A handful of subdivided signs, similar to the ones discussed above, are painted around the Crypt and placed with particular attention to the openings that connect–or, almost connect–this secluded area to the Gallery (Fig. 26, B, C, and D). As they address those passages, the ideograms take part in an incipient struggle by agents of the sky-principle to extricate themselves from the grip of the earth-related setting. One sign is triple-sectioned according to the Castillo cave type; the others are of the Pasiega type, with the sky-side cut through by a protruding center line.
The Pasiega Crypt, like the end of Gallery A and the Corner of Tectiforms in the Castillo cave, show the artists pursuing a double purpose with their signs, one of which was to recognize a grand conceptual scheme of universal scope, while the other one was to glorify specific, powerful spots in their own–local or regional–cave sanctuaries. In the case of the sacred mountain of Castillo, which was home to several major, decorated cave systems, the artists were certainly conscious of this confluence of the universal and the particular, and we should not be surprised if their mixed feelings of awe and pride found expression in visual references to the mountain itself. In fact, the two triangular signs in the main panel of the Pasiega Crypt (Fig. 26, A, top right) can be seen as a sort of archaic landscape painting, showing the conical Mount Castillo with the adjacent mountain range as seen from the north (cf. Fig. 27, a and b). A similar sign is found in the Castillo cave (Fig. 27 c). Of course, such similarities can not be considered conclusive, but it is worth noting that a modern artist has condensed his-or-her perception of Mount Castillo in the same way form as the Pasiega artist (cf. Fig. 27 d).
While the mandala-like signs of the four decorated caves of Mount Castillo differ in style and belong to different eras, they also share basic features and functions. They address the dual powers at the root of creation, and present themselves as portals through which numinuos powers of the holy sites are channeled for the benefits of some tribal communities. The function of this class of signs is in some ways comparable to the well-documented ritual practice of inserting objects (blades, points, splinters) into rock fissures and niches in the walls of cave sanctuaries; the ideograms, however, take a step beyond these mute acts as they endeavor to articulate the thought behind the gestures.
Spring and “maximal yang”
The situations reviewed above revolve around the troubled emergence of spring, which the artists ritually promoted with their mandalas. The concept of complementary dualism theoretically designates summer as the peak moment of sky-related powers, but the artists clearly considered the incipient release of “yang” powers in spring to be the optimal and crucial display of sky-related powers, more so than the saturation of summer. Typically, artists would focus their images on the drama of fresh energies erupting at the end of winter. We find an echo of this attitude in an early Taoist tradition that applies the term “maximal,” or “greater” yang to the moment of spring, the time of first thunders and breaking of the ice (Granet 1975, 134-35). In this spirit, the cave artists gave heightened attention to spring, which they typically celebrated as the break-through moment, when the sky-related principle reasserted itself.
With reference to our discussion of Chauvet (Part One, above), we can rest assured that the artists who decorated that cave were quite cognizant of animal behavior and fully aware that the season of spring would not empower aurochs bulls and horses to physically overpower lions and rhinos, as they are shown doing in the images of Hillaire Hall (cf. Fig. 6; Fig. 3; Fig. 5; Fig. 4). Yet, in these episodes the artists represented, in their own terms, the essential reality of the particular moment when the balance of powers shifts and everything sky-related becomes irresistible, while everything earth-related must yield as if by magic. Hence, spring prevails, however entrenched winter may seem.
The role of the stag in several of the discussed scenes is a prime exhibit of this predisposition. Within the framework of complementary dualism sexual categories are relative, so that the deer–females and males alike–may be upper-world characters (and “yang”) relative to the earth-bound bison, whereas the female deer is earth-related (and “yin”) relative to the male deer that is sky-related (“yang”). For this reason, the stag takes on its particular role in the above-mentioned ensemble around the niche in the back of Pasiega’s Gallery A. Inside the niche (at D, Fig. 23 a) the doe is forcibly retained by the closed-up earth sign (Fig. 24 a), but just outside the niche, the stag defiantly thrusts its antlers through a similar sign (Fig. 24 d). So, although the doe here is the key image of the sky-world (and “yang”), the male is the quintessential upper-world related agent (and “maximum yang”), spearheading the move to advance spring. As the antlers cut through the upper side of the closed sign (Fig. 24 d) they, in effect, break it open in the likeness of the ideograms of Pasiega A that are divided into a closed earth-side and an open sky-side (cf, Fig. 22 d, e; Fig. 24 c, e). This capability–reflecting the hypertrophic growth of antlers–is a recurrent feature in portrayals of stags.
A quite similar assembly of visual elements is found in Tito Bustillo. At one end of the cave’s great panel, the presence of a netherworld realm is strongly felt, because of an opening at the bottom of the wall through which a subterranean river is loudly audible. Here the figure of a female deer, low in the panel, is painted with its neck “stuck” in the gaping fissure and, underscoring the similarity with the just-mentioned scene in Pasiega, a subdivided sign is engraved immediately above the deer (Fig. 33, bottom). Stylistically, the sign differs from those at Mount Castillo, but the function is comparable. Thus, the line of crossing lines in the bottom section of the sign may be seen as emphasizing the prevalence of the netherworld realm.
Above the female deer, a male emerges with its antlers rising above a second ideogram (Fig. 33, top), and again the analogy with the Paseiga composition is striking, as the stag virtually breaks open the sign; in fact, a short line intersecting the upper edge recalls the short points projecting from the sky-side of some Pasiega signs (Fig. 24 c, for example). The composition points to spring as the break-through moment and casts the stag as the agent of the sky-force in the struggle to redress the cosmic balance. The success of the effort is manifest in the grand panel’s presentation of half-a-dozen large, impressive horses.
Within the Castillo mountain, the cave of Chimeneas emphatically demonstrates the stellar role of the stag in the vindication of upper-world forces over netherworld encroachment. In the southern-most end of the cave we find an odd, circular corridor that runs right through the hard mass of rock (cf. the plan, Fig. 28 a). The full significance of this curious phenomenon is brought out by half a dozen figures of stags (Fig. 28 b, c, d) painted inside the corridor. As they seem to blaze a trail into the mountain and out again, the prevailing direction of the energetic characters is from right to left; incidentally, this means a move from west to east, which resonates with the return, on the left, of the last stag (Fig. 28 d), as it brings along the sole horse (Fig. 28 e)–the return of the sun from a journey through the netherworld.
The above scene is found at a spot to which the visitor is directed by a poster-like panel featuring complex, painted ideograms (f and h in Fig. 28 a). Two of these signs (Fig. 28 f) are of the triple-section type, with the outer wings markedly different from the center portion, and with a slightly raised top part at the center. On one sign, particularly, the raised middle section is arched like a door-way, and we may reasonably see this central part as an opening, a passage through which the forces of spring are released, just as the horse’s head below is released from the actual passage through the rock. In any case, we notice the similarity with mandalas in the neighboring caves (for example, Fig. 18 a), which show a sky-oriented side that is “open” at the center, at the point that marks spring.
In the Chimeneas panel, two rectangular images of the four-cornered earth likewise acknowledge the opening-up of the earth and a new, fertile balance of earth and sky. One (Fig. 28 g) is crossed by three strokes, “3″ being the key numeral of the sky-forces; the other one (Fig. 28 h) is dramatically struck from above by a lightning-like zigzag, thus illustrating the powerful male/sky/”yang” powers penetrating the earth with the first thunder of spring.
Energy in flux
Cave artists used mandala-like signs as media for channeling numinous energies between the netherworld and the upper-world, as ritual means of assisting the mutations in fall or in spring, when vital energies are drawn into the earth-related sphere (as seeds in the ground, as embryos in the uterus, as hibernating creatures in caves), or when they are released to the sky-related world (as seeds sprouting, as young being born, as creatures emerging from hibernation). Combined with the mandalas we often find a type of designs that emphasize fluidity, as they are composed of dots or short strokes arranged in lines or organized as ribbons. We may suspect that these signs are abstract renditions of the flow of energies during the fall and spring transitions, and the association between these streamers and the mandalas may confirm that intuition.
The large compartmentalized sign in Pasiega C (B in Fig. 26) is juxtaposed with parallel rows of dots that wind themselves around the sign, in a way that closely resemble the configuration of signs and dots in the panel of mandalas in Castillo’s Corner of Tectiforms (Fig. 19 a). In the latter, particularly, the multiple lines of dots sway in undulating curves that definitely suggest a flow of liquid matter. This panel is painted where the wall of the corridor enters the niche (at B in Fig. 20 a), and the two main streams of dots clearly emanate from a roughly rectangular shape painted inside the recess, in its low ceiling (Fig. 19 a, at the top). This rectangle is, itself, composed of parallel rows of dots, like the two large streams on the wall, but it differs from them in so far as it is a closed, containing, form, whereas they spread out.
Following one feasible interpretation, we may see the flows of dots as streaming waters released to the outer cave, in which case the rectangle of dots is readily understood as a body of water retained in the inner cave or in the depths of the earth. In that view, the accumulated mandalas (Fig. 19 a) may be instrumental in releasing the stemmed-up waters; they may well be ritual tools to activate the transition, in which case their triple-sectioned design exposes the principle of regular (seasonal) change that guides the transformation.
If so, the display recalls the mentioned philosophical principles of “closed” and yin versus “open” and yang, to which we may add another explicit analogy culled from early Chinese texts: to yin belong waters that are frozen, or are gathered in underground reservoirs, or are stagnant as in swamps; by contrast, to yang belong rivers that rush with the breaking of the ice, or source springs that emerge from hillsides, or ditches that drain marshes (Hart 1976). Analogous concepts of stilled versus moving–earth-principle versus sky-principle–were apparently held by the artists who decorated the Corner of the Tectiforms.
The Palaeolithic artists realized that moisture circulates between the earth and the sky (cf. Chapters III and IV), and this realization may be reflected in the vertical direction of the flow of dots (Fig. 19 a), which could be perceived as rain (drops) falling in spring, or alternatively, as steam rising to form a cloud. Conceptually, these may be manifestations of the same phenomenon as streams released from the depths. Whether we read the dotted square as a cloud, as a frozen pond, or as a subterranean pool, we recognize the shift from retention and “yin” to release and “yang”; what mattered to the artists was the eruption of energy, described with dramatic gusto.
In Altamira we find an ensemble of painted signs that is somewhat more explicit. In a large alcove-like recess (almost a side gallery of its own) the only elements of decoration are four moon-shaped ideograms of the three-part type, placed high up, toward the back, and rows of horizontal bands, the latter placed low on the wall (Fig. 29). The ribbon-like bands contain short strokes that we may compare to the dots in the above-mentioned rows or streamers. The disposition of the ribbons bear this out, as they literally flow toward the opening of the alcove like a stream that gains force on advancing: beginning with a single course in the back (rising vertically; Fig. 29, to the right), it grows into two, then three, four, and finally, five parallel or concurrent courses–a drastic change from a trickle in the back to a torrent in the front.
The group of triple-division signs hovering above this display (Fig. 29, top) reveal, with their three divisions and their reference to phases of waning and waxing, that the rushed development below is tied to the cycle of the year, specifically–we may assume–to the time when a spring-related surge of sky-world energies overcomes a winter-long freeze imposed by earth-powers. We may add that a ribbon, which is very similar to the ones in the Altamira alcove, occurs in the great panel of Tito Bustillo (Fig. 33) in juxtaposition with two subdivided ideograms. In this case, the association with flowing water is obvious, because a rushing stream is audible just below.
At this point we must, however, pause and recognize that the philosophy of complementary dualism is all-embracing, relevant to myriad inter-related phenomena, and that the metaphor of frost-thaw-flowing water, is but one of several feasible ways to read the fluid element in the Altamira alcove. Thus, generative juices in animals and rising sap in plants–both activated in spring–are also likely references for the flowing and branching streamers, as is quite clearly stated in a number of images.
Ribbons that are quite similar to the ones at Altamira–marked internally with short, regular strokes–are engraved on an ivory object from Mas d’Azil (Fig. 31 a), an artifact explicitly carved in the shape of a phallus. In this case, given the form of the artifact, the obvious association would be with semen, given that the decorative bands follow the shaft of the phallus, the dotted ribbons simulating a flow of sperm.
The swelling of rivers upon the breaking of the ice, the rush of bodily fluids with warming weather, and the rise of sap in plants with the revival of vegetation–these events are equally emblematic of the “yang” principle as it asserts itself in spring. A brief survey of a few decorated artifacts will reveal the tightly knit connection between the three phenomena, as the artists managed to condense them even on small-scale surfaces.
The just-mentioned staff from Mas d’Azil alludes both to moving water and to still water, the latter represented as tightly massed, rippled lines around the base of the object (Fig. 31 a, bottom). More is involved, however, as the dotted ribbons along the shaft of the phallus–suggesting the flow of semen–spread out in a way that evoke vegetal growth, with opposed branches departing from a common stem. In that perspective, the flow of liquid may rather be sap rising in a stylized plant. Each of the three readings is valid–and intentionally so.
A comparable object from Bruniquel (Fig. 31 b) indicates flowing water by a zigzag-line as well as by fishes, but sexuality is, again, indicated, both by the phallic shape of the object itself, and by some fish forms, as tails of fish may be female symbols, heads of fishes male symbols (as demonstrated already by Breuil and Saint-Périer 1927). Plant designs are not included, but due to the fact that the staff is carved from the woods of a deer, vegetation symbolism is inherently present. The same elements, in a highly compressed form, are engraved on a stone from Romanelli (Fig. 31 c). We find parallel zigzag lines that portray water, but which also suggest semen,in so far as the object itself is a phallic form (a lingam). Here too, the rising liquid fills a design that is distinctly plant-like (and antler-like, as well).
The intermingled manifestations of energies, as outlined in the above discussion, appears to reflect an evolved practice of thinking in flexible categories that–we may hypothesize–entailed a corresponding use of spoken language. Although we ignore the phonetic/grammatical character of Upper Palaeolithic languages, we may tentatively connect ancient images with modern words, a procedure that seems safe with respect to words (nouns) for tangible objects (a horse is a horse in any language), but which may also be–tentatively–applied to other classes of words. Pursuing a different analytical approach from the present study, relying on a model of semantics and a theory of Jungian archetypes, J.B.Harrod has proposed a short list of action verbs that he applies successfully to a sampling of Upper Palaeolithic images. The principal action verbs suggested are (phrased as commands): “sprout, grow, branch!” and “flow!” (Harrod 2004). These terms are, apparently, perfectly relevant to the above readings.
The Bruniquel object (Fig. 31 b) is a perforated staff, a distinct class of objects in which a drilled or carved hole (always at the base) performs essentially the same symbolic function as the innermost depths and recesses fulfill in the decorated caves. The perforations were drilled at the point of the stems from which the antlers originally grew, and they, thus, tapped into the growth potential manifest in the antlers themselves (cf. discussion in Chapter VII). In this respect, they emulate the caves’ recesses and pits, which tap into primordial subterranean resources. A comparison between the Bruniquel staff and the above-mentioned caves is therefore entirely legitimate.
An eloquently decorated staff from Gourdan (Fig. 32) provides an explicit illustration of this role of perforations as pathways to numinous energies. On the Gourdan staff, the hole at the base is surrounded by parallel lines that, in near-universal form, represent a cave, or rather, the opening of the cave that is the perforation itself (Fig. 32, bottom). From this design we may deduce that energies accessed via perforated staffs were perceived as–at least symbolically–originating in the abysmal netherworld, which also was approachable in the depths of caves. Indeed, the staffs show the release of these forces by means of the same imagery of streams and movements as used in the cave decorations.
In the Gourdan example, a flow of water (respectively, semen, sap, blood, or other vital essences) is indicated both by a zigzag-line (circling the staff; Fig, 32, in the middle) and by two fishes (mating salmon, suggesting a spring run; Fig. 32, top). Quite different from these references to streaming waters, the area next to the cave-like surrounds of the perforation is covered with a field of almost featureless, only slightly rippled, lines that we may see as a marsh-like body of stagnant water. This is the area from which the wounded stag is escaping (Fig. 32, bottom). The “swamp” appears to divide in two, the parting of the waters opening up a passage through which the stag passes–bringing along the paralyzed (frontal) horse/sun. We may interpret the decoration of the staff in terms of a moment of spring, when the ice breaks, rivers with teaming life flows, the frozen sun returns, what is static gives way to what moves. The array of feasible implications is myriad, but we may insist on the one observation that here–as in the above-mentioned cave scenes–the stag is the agent of the sky-related principle that breaks the earth-related stasis of winter.
Caves, mandalas, and the flow of vital energies
As shown above, collections of mandalas are integral parts of the visual programs in the caves of Castillo, Pasiega, and Altamira. A brief review will furthermore show that these mandalas, as ritual tools, regulating the release of fluids in spring, also affect the themes of sexual revival (human and animal) and the growth of plants.
In Castillo’s Corner of Tectiforms, a tall, free-standing, phallic rock formation is a noticeable feature of the scenery at the opening of the decorated niche (at C in Fig. 20 a; cf. photos in donsmaps.com/castillo.html), which likely entails that the above-mentioned streams of red dots were associated with semen and sexual arousal. As discussed above, Castillo also presents us with a conspicuous rendition of the motif of the doe superimposed on the bison (Fig. 21 a), which is a visual trope that, besides its sexual implications, surely pertains to the revival of vegetation on the surface of the earth–that is, the back of the bison.
In Pasiega’s Gallery C, the flow of dots around the large mandala (B in Fig. 26) may signify waters, but the female genital triangle below the mandala (B, bottom) suggests that we also read the dots as fertile sperm. This view is the more likely as the bison-mask with the huge phallus is located just on the other side of the screen wall of the Crypt (at E in Fig. 26). Inside the Crypt, the mythic/ritual theme of the female deer and the bison bull is not to be missed, as the central panel of the does (A in Fig. 26) faces the panel of the bison-man; thus, sexuality and vegetation are evoked here, too. In the central panel (A, to the left, in Fig. 26) red dots are arranged in a concave sickle-shape that evokes the moon and its role as ruler of vital juices (including uterine fluids) and of the growth/decay (waxing/waning) of plants. Besides the tripartite sign just mentioned, several other Pasiega-type mandalas appear to control the passages to/from the Crypt, and thus, to influence what we may consider an auspicious womb of the earth, a veritable uterine chamber of growth.
In the alcove of Altamira, the flowing ribbons (Fig. 29) may, as discussed above, equally well relate to water, semen, or sap. We do, indeed, find all of these themes to be included in the decoration of the cave at large. The theme of waters being released is not exclusive to the large alcove, but one that is amply represented on the polychrome ceiling, in the innermost and lowest part of the ceiling, by way of scores of fan-shaped signs (Freeman & Echegaray 2001, 41-42). Each of these engraved signs consists of a wedge-shaped bundle of lines, all of them starting from one common point, each one effectively representing liquid squirting out from a small opening (cf. discussion in Chapter VII). All these signs may, of course, imply the waters actually present in the depths of the cave, but they may as well refer to the ejaculation of semen–not an unlikely association, as a number of human males with pronounced erections are engraved between the polychrome figures (Freeman and Echegaray 2001, 38).
The pivotal theme of Altamira is the relationship between the doe and the bison bull, which is an intensely erotic topic, but one that in the broadest sense concerns all life on earth, human, animal, and vegetal. In the front part of the cave, the stunning polychromy of the bison illustrates the transformative powers of spring, with the bisons’ warm colors showing the generosity and nourishing potential of the revived earth. Here, we fully realize that the winter-/darkness-side of the earth-force (“yin”) has yielded to the forces of the sun and the sky (“yang”). In a striking illustration of this reversal, the doe assumes the dominant role in the relationship with the bison, as is definitively acknowledged in the figure of a doe–the largest of all the painted figures–that towers over a tiny black bison (Fig. 30 b).
The revival of vegetation is hardly separable from the theme of the warming of the earth in spring, and this connection is, here too, acknowledged by a doe that is superimposed on a bison (Fig. 30 c); again, the bison’s back is the surface of the earth, and the doe is emblematic of growth and prosperity on earth. As demonstrated by the above-mentioned object from La Vache (Fig. 38), the bison/earth retains the seeds of growth, the doe releases the sprouting plants and brings out the flowering.
Reconsidering Altamira in its entirety, we find that the spectacle of released energies in the alcove (Fig. 29) is prepared already in the narrow, twisting tunnel at the very end of the cave, the site of an impressive gathering of mandalas (Fig. 30 a). Situated at the opening of a niche in the rock wall, the group of signs reflects the artists’ desire to elicit powers retained deep inside the mountain, and the perceived success of their effort may be traced throughout the narrative program of the cave. For a beginning, in the terminal tunnel, the solar horse is subservient to the earthy bison. One horse even shows the animal marked by several large “V” shaped arrows or wounds and bleeding from the nostrils (Freeman and Echegaray 2001, 40). Progressing to the front of the cave–past the large alcove with its display of erupting spring energies–we find that the outer part of the painted ceiling (the area where daylight from the cave’s entrance was once noticeable) displays several lively, red horses, joyfully celebrating the arrival of summer (idem, 39-40).
In all situations considered above, the complex, three-partite signs are found at cave locations where the winter-related forces of the earth prevail, but where that prevalence is being challenged. The highly visible display of mandalas in Chimeneas (Fig. 28 a) shows that the chosen locations are not necessarily deep areas of difficult access; the ambulant rock-channel is hidden, but the ideograms are exposed. The numinous forces that were felt to be strongly present. The artists’ goal was to make the numerous energies of the netherworld realm useful for the outer world. Everywhere in the caves, emblems of the two great principles are competing for dominance, and repeatedly sub-divided ideograms are called upon to guarantee a harmonious outcome.
Spanish-type ideograms in France: Marsoulas
The above discussion concerns caves of northern Spain, but the use of complex ideograms to articulate complementary dualism was common to Upper Palaeolithic cultures, and other regions pursued other styles. As with figurative conventions, types of mandalas show a mixture of originality and inter-regional exchange.
Located in the French Pyrenees, the cave of Marsoulas has specimens that closely resemble the above-mentioned ones and function like them. This is particularly obvious in the case of the very last sign in the cave (Fig. 34 a), which stands out in red paint against a panel of engraved figures (cf. Fig. 34 b). This ensemble covers the right-hand wall as it traces the slippery descent to the active stream that marks the end of the sanctuary (at A on the cross-section, Fig. 35 a). This precarious setting is suitably dominated by earth-related motifs, which are predominantly bison, but which include even a grim lion looming at the upper end. Against this display, the red sign conveys the vision of a world that harmoniously embrace the principles of both the earth and the sky.
The upper part of the sign is roof-like and arched upwards (Fig. 34 a), and it ends in an aperture from which several short strokes emerge, a design that evidently resembles some of the above signs with a sky-related side that is opened up and an earth-related side that is closed. Separating the two sides, a horizontal line sets off a bottom segment turned toward the netherworld (Fig. 34 a, lower third), a feature that, again, recalls some of the signs in Castillo and Pasiega. As if to confirm that this nether section is meaningful, the unusual figure of an owl is engraved precisely here, establishing a tie between the bottom portion of the sign and the underworld of the dead, the near-universal association of owls. In a contrasting gesture, the upper portion of the sign is connected with a horse, the prime image of the sun and the sky-world (Fig. 34 a, top).
The moon as emblematic of the law of waxing and waning is implicated, as well, by way of a numerical series counting thirteen regular strokes (Fig. 34 a, center), which may be a generic number for the days of waxing, and possibly also an indicator for the moon as regulator of fertility, assuming that thirteen days were recognized as the optimal period of conception in the menstrual cycle (like the thirteen notches in the horn carried by the familiar “Venus” of Laussel; cf. Chapter VIII). The Marsoulas sign is furthermore a genuine cosmogram, with a center (emphasized at the top) that signals its–and the cave’s–status as the center of the world (cf. the mountain-signs in the Mt. Castillo caves; Fig. 27 a, c).
The Marsoulas mandala sets the stage for the development throughout the single-gallery sanctuary, from the brink of the subterranean stream to the threshold of the entrance; a progression that entails a gradual transformation from the strong dominance of bison in the back to the prevalence of horses in the front. Paralleling this development, we find an increasing presence of painted (red) images of vegetation that reflect a gradual shift from winter toward summer.
The first of these stylized plant designs is found at the top of the terminal slope (at B in Fig. 35 a) and is placed vis-à-vis a black bison that carries a red compartmentalized ideogram (Fig. 35 b), the first mandala-like sign in the upper gallery. In a deliberate fashion, this cosmogram is superimposed on the bison so that the opening at the top precisely reaches the bison’s back, which is synonymous with the surface of the earth. We may read this to say that sky-related energies are about to break out, and that this means breaking open the closed earth–a winter-to-spring moment. In this sense, the division of the ideogram into three horizontal layers establishes the model for a world separated into netherworld, surface of the earth, and sky. Quickly confirming this change, the black bison with the mandala is followed, a bit further out, by another bison that is partially covered with horizontal lines of red dots (Fig. 35 c). As discussed above, this signals the release of energies (waters, semen, sap) that transforms the surface of the earth/bison.
In the great panel of the cave (at C in Fig. 35 a) we see the apotheosis of red vegetation signs. In the center, the horse–though still surrounded by large bison–carries along a huge vegetation symbol, seemingly dragging it up from below (Fig. 36 a). Apparently, this conspicuous plant symbol originates in a lower region, which may be the depths of the earth, and indeed, a niche at floor-level (at D, Fig. 35 a) contains a genuine plant image, one that seemingly is rooted in–or nourished by–rows of red dots (Fig. 36 b). We are reminded of the theme of life-sustaining waters released, and vital juices replenished, with the arrival of spring. In the same vein, we notice that the body of the largest bison (Fig. 36 a, left) is painted a light, delicate shade of brown–far from the black of the innermost bison–and that another bison (in front of the large horse) is entirely covered with hundreds of red dots (Fritz and Tosello 2010, 22-23). Both images speak about the warming of the earth and, thus, of the end to the dominance of winter and the repressing forces of the netherworld and “yin.”
Below the horse at the center of the panel we find the last of the cave’s divided ideograms (Fig. 36 a), which we confidently can characterize as the artists’ final gesture to reset and ensure the harmony of earth and sky. Indeed, moving into the front end of the cave, we find that the shift toward rule by the sun-/sky-principle has been accomplished, as the horses now over-power the bison both by numbers and by size. In the last preserved ensemble, close to the entrance (at E in Fig. 35 a), ten horses entirely dominate a single bison (Fig. 36 c). The vindication of the powers of sky and “yang” is here captured by the configuration of a dying (wounded and bleeding) horse, its head lowered to the ground, over which rises a much larger image of a horse, and while the former is turned inward (and downward), the latter is moving outward–winter is behind, summer ahead.
The hut-shaped sign of Combarelles
Contacts between individual cave regions are well documented (though the chronology remains elusive), and we should not be surprised to find strong similarities between the just-mentioned mandalas in Marsoulas, in southern France, and the familiar hut-like signs (the true “tectiforms”) that are characteristic of a region in central France. For example, one ideogram in Combarelles (Fig. 37 a) is obviously quite similar to the above-mentioned one in Marsoulas (Fig. 34 a); moreover, the topographical use of these two signs is strikingly similar as well: each is located at the very end of the cave (both sites have single-corridor plans); both are at a point where the, otherwise horizontal, floor abruptly drops to meet a subterranean stream (at A in Fig. 35 a; at Y in Fig. 37 b). The shared topographical scheme is the more noteworthy as both signs are painted red to stand out from surrounding engravings.
The Combarelles sign is one of only two red images in this rich cave with its hundreds of figures. The first of these two (at X in Fig. 37 b) is unfortunately badly damaged, but the one in question is a typical hut design with recognizable floor, inclined walls, pitched roof, and smoke-hole (Fig. 37 a). The latter detail–identical to the opening at the top of the Marsoulas sign–is the feature that makes the sky-side of the ideogram differ from the earth-side. The Combarelles sign is, then, a true cosmogram, with a roof that is the sky and a floor that is the earth; as in Marsoulas, it is also a ritual statement that endeavors to reset the balance between the seasons of winter and summer.
The narrative program of Combarelles clarifies this intent, because the chosen location of the hut-shaped ideogram coincides with the turning point for the long file of hundreds of horses, the main motif of the cave. Entering the cave and reading the left-hand wall, from the beginning of the decoration to this remote location, the visitor joins the majority of the horses and, particularly, the largest ones as they persistently move inward; that is, toward winter. Reaching the ideogram near the end, and returning while reading the opposite (right-hand) wall, the visitor again joins the prevalent orientation of the horses, moving outward, which means toward summer (cf. discussion in Chapter V). From the apparent correlation between ideogram and the change of direction of the solar horse, we conclude that the red mandala was credited with the power to end the decline of the year and reset the balance between the seasons.
The double-arc signs of Chauvet
Among the painted ideograms of Pasiega are some (Fig. 39 a) that look like simplified versions of the large, sectioned mandala of Castillo discussed above (Fig. 18 a). Similar signs, also solidly colored and without internal divisions, are found on the painted ceiling of Altamira (Fig. 39 b). In this form (Fig. 39 a and b), the rendition of contrasting dualistic principles is still noticeable in the two “horns,” just as a transitional part is still–even if discreetly–suggested by the pointed center. Also, the moon’s rhythm is still evoked by the overall shape. Though the paths of diffusion remain nebulous, there is a clear affinity between these signs and a sign that plays a significant role in Chauvet, in south-eastern France (Fig. 39 c).
The double-arc sign is seen several places in Chauvet, and as with the ideograms of caves discussed above (Pasiega, Altamira, Marsoulas, Combarelles), the first occurrences are at the innermost or deepest areas. As discussed in Part One, this area of Chauvet represents the apogee of earth-powers, the period around mid-winter when the frost was tightening its grip, all demonstrated by the ferocious display of scores of lions and equal numbers of rhinos, organized in aggressive herds.
The first double-arc sign (engraved over a painted mammoth; Fig. 40 a) is placed at the entrance to the narrow passage–a veritable birth-canal–connecting the innermost chamber (the Sacristy) and the large Inner Gallery (cf. Fig. 1 a). This is the passage from which the re-born sun/horse is seen tentatively emerging (cf. Fig. 10, in the back). As they applied the mandala-like sign, with its universal principle of transitional dualism, the artists acknowledged the momentous implications of this first step, which is the release of the solar horse from the “uterus” in the earth’s bosom, and ultimately, the opening up of the realm of “yin” and the resurrection of the forces of “yang.”
It would be a mistake to conclude, based on this image (Fig. 40 a), that the Chauvet sign is a stylization of the mammoth’s tusks. In fact, this figure is the only one, among more than fifty mammoths in Chauvet, that has tusks of this shape. It was initially painted with tusks that were made to resemble the sign, and it was subsequently over-engraved so as to highlight the similarity. This particular mammoth was formed to recall the ideogram, not the opposite.
Like the ideograms of the Castillo caves, the Chauvet sign was sometimes multiplied for greater effectiveness. This occurs in the second application, as part of a panel in the inner gallery (Fig. 40 b, to the right). This panel is located on the right-hand wall of the gallery and marks the last step (downward and inward) toward the just-mentioned Sacristy; it is at the low point of the year’s journey into winter. Indeed, this panel shows the victory of the earth-related principle to be all but total, a message conveyed by the composition that shows the female genital triangle (Fig. 40 b, top center), the ultimate metaphor of life-renewal, surrounded in a symmetrical arrangement by large, fearsome lions and rhinos. Only one figure is at odds with the overwhelmingly grim spectacle, namely the bear (Fig. 40 b, lower right).
The bear is the signature character of the front half of the cave, where figures of bears all are red and all relate to the end of hibernation as the signal for spring. Let us recall the importance of color coding in Chauvet, as the visual program traces a curve from the innermost/deepest part, with winter and the reign of death, to the front, with spring and renewed life: in the former, painted figures are predominantly black, in the latter they are red. As the only figure of a bear in the depths of the cave, the one in question (Fig. 40 b) represents a diminished, rather faint trace of the sky-related side of complementary dualism. As argued in Part One, we may compare its presence in the inner gallery to the yin-yang sign’s proverbial white dot in a field of solid black.
In this situation, the accumulation of double-arched signs (Fig. 40 b, upper right) becomes an act of ritual exegesis, a rather desperate show of faith in the flailing sky-forces. Of course, the concept of complementary dualism also embraces the role of the earth/netherworld as the womb in which all life is (re)generated and from which all must be (re)born, and this aspect of the conceptual hierarchy is implied by the design of the Chauvet-type ideogram. Likewise, the panel under discussion (Fig. 40 b) is inherently ambiguous: the female symbol may be seen as threatened the surrounding brutes, or as guarded by them (reminiscent of later, proto-historic images of “mother goddesses” flanked by lions or other beasts). In the actual situation, at the end of the cave, the urgent need is for the mandalas to counter the dominance of the earth principle and re-assert the sky principle. Another group of engraved double-arc ideograms appear in Hillaire Hall, where they are situated on a rock drapery overhanging a substantial suction-pit in the floor (Azéma and Clottes 2008a, 4). The pit (though originally not as wide as to-day) was apparently perceived as potential netherworld resurgence, threatening the Hall’s message of transformation from winter to spring, a perception that was acknowledged by the image of an ominous owl at this location (Chauvet et al. 1996, 49). The ideograms with their message of unassailable order were, then, appropriate here.
Advancing beyond the moment of incipient spring, as detailed in the Hillaire Hall, moving further outward, past the Threshold (cf. Fig. 1 a), we leave far behind the deadly display of the inner gallery and enter a zone of relative settlement. The pivotal area of the Threshold, notably, is the site of the most visible of the double-arched ideograms of Chauvet (Fig. 39 c), one that assumes the status of a concluding gesture. The red mandala holds a prominent place in the upper tier of the large panel that, broadly, signals the victory of spring/summer over winter. Here, the lions and rhinos appear transformed and pacified, partly due to their all-red color and their juxtaposition with red hand prints and dots (cf. Fig. 8), and partly because of their changed behavior. Distinct from the inner gallery, the lions are no longer a hunting pack and the rhinos no longer an earth-shaking herd; the conquering momentum of the earth-related powers (the prime of “yin”) is broken. In effect, one group of rhinoceroses simply displays a peaceful family of a male, a baby, and a female (Fig. 39 c); the heavy brutes are “domesticated.” Visibly, the imposing presence of the large, red ideogram seals the achievement, which amounts to a resetting of the cosmic balance in favor of the sky-related (“yang”) principle.
The square mandalas of Lascaux
Lascaux has probably the largest number of mandala-like signs among Palaeolithic caves. By appearance, they are essentially square, and thus, different from the ones discussed above (except, perhaps, certain examples from Tito Bustillo and Chimeneas; Fig. 33, and Fig. 28). They are characteristic of Solutrean Dordogne, and we find similar signs in Gabillou, in the same region. Ideograms in moon-sickle shape are not unknown in Lascaux, but they are exceptional. A sign of the Chauvet-type occurs in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 42 a), and like in Chauvet, it is associated with animal horns, though here with horns of an ibex rather than a mammoth. As in Chauvet, however, the sign is not derived from the animal’s horns, but to the contrary, the horns are emblematic of the sign. The ibex in question (Fig. 42 a) is, indeed, the only one among the cave’s many ibexes that is portrayed with horns in the characteristic symmetrical/frontal perspective.
Overwhelmingly, the Lascaux mandalas employ right angles and straight lines. Yet, without recourse to sickle-shapes, internal subdivisions designate opposite sections of the square forms as waning and waxing. In some cases, juxtapositions with animal figures help us read the signs. Thus, Lascaux offers a parallel to the scene of the moon-like mandala in Castillo (Fig. 18 a), as a square sign in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 41 a) is the center-piece around which two horses move in contrary fashion, one directed inward and downward (in fact, directly down toward the Shaft), the other one aimed outward. In Lascaux as in Castillo, the familiar role of the horse and the solar year allows us to see the innermost (left-hand) section of the sign as winter- and earth-related, the outermost (right) one as summer- and sky-related; they are waning and “yin,” waxing and “yang.”
The same Castillo scene also finds an echo in one engraved panel in the back of Lascaux’ sister cave, Gabillou (Fig. 42 b). Here a square mandala hovers above two antithetic horse figures: one is turned inward and its head is lowered to the ground; the other is directed outward and its lifted head is enhanced by red ocher (the color accent is significant, as colors are used sparingly in Gabillou). The horse that is turned toward the depths and winter shows the old year, the one that is turned to the outside and summer represents the new year. The mandala itself is painted a conspicuous yellow and is designed with a rectangular center field–perhaps the earth–an inner (winter) side and an outer (summer) side, as well as lower and upper sections (suggesting earth and sky); it has the characteristics of a complete cosmogram.
Another Spanish configuration with a matching counterpart in Lascaux is the square sign with a superimposed stag in Tito Bustillo (Fig. 33). A similar composition in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 41 b) devotes special attention to the center portion of the sign (covered with fine striations), a feature of the Tito Bustillo sign, as noted above. We may assume that the middle section of the Lascaux sign–like the center of the Spanish one–refers to spring and to the release of new energies, as is also indicated by the soaring antlers.
The angular mandalas of Lascaux and Gabillou are not standardized but, to the contrary, adapted to a variety of situations (cf. Fig. 43, a – k): divided into dual halves (a); with pillars of the world’s four corners (b, c, j); with emphasis on the earth/netherworld (d), or on the sky/upper-world (e); with the numerical symbolism of “three” for the sky and “four” for the earth (f); with open, sky- and spring-related, top center (g, k); with multiple divisions along the time dimension (by vertical lines, h) and in the space dimension (by horizontal lines, i).
In spite of the variety, we notice that some outstanding displays in Lascaux (such as the multi-colored group in the Nave, Fig. 46 c) adopt a regularized version that apparently was perceived as basic: a square divided into three horizontal and three vertical sections, generating nine fields. Though only a general guideline for the artists, this model provides us with a theoretical basis for reading the angular mandalas (cf. Fig. 43 l).
As the signs are always level and plumb, the assignment of the lower and upper tiers to earth and sky is a given. The sides (right and left) belong to the seasons according to the actual orientation of the rock wall: the summer side is the one that is turned outward; the winter side is the one turned inward. The double-mark that repeatedly notches the top of the sign in the center (Fig. 43 l) is a counterpart to the protruding peaks or strokes that mark many of the above-discussed mandalas, and we may read it as indicating the season of spring (reading horizontally) and as announcing a world that is open to the sky (vertically); typically, we may see this feature as announcing the release of new life forces with the end of winter. In short, we shall proceed to read the square signs essentially like we have read the Castillo model (Fig. 18 b).
Lascaux provides an exceptional opportunity to study a great number of mandalas in the context of an artistic program that was carefully thought out and meticulously executed. While these ideograms accompany the decoration in most parts of the cave, exceptional distributions are significant, both regarding areas without any mandalas, and with respect to spots with amassments of mandalas.
Notably, mandala-type signs are absent from the Rotunda. The most exuberant part of the cave, located closest to the entrance (cf. the plan, Fig. 44), and roofed over by a grand celestial dome, the Rotunda is overwhelmingly sky-related, or “yang.” It is the location with the most intense concentration of motifs that are decidedly sky-related, including huge aurochs bulls (but no clear presence of bison), as well as dynamic stags; this is the area of the cave that was least in need of ritual support to counter-balance those earth-related powers that dominate the inner cave regions.
Conversely, the innermost cave, with its strong presence of bison and lions, and most of all the Shaft with its obtrusive bison and rhinoceros, are set off by strong concentrations of the ideograms. The overall pattern of distribution, thus, agrees with our thesis, that the mandalas primarily served a shift of modality from netherworld and winter to upper-world and summer. In the Rotunda spring has conquered all; in the depths winter reigns.
The Chamber of Lions: breaking stasis
As we trace the use of the grid-like mandalas from the back to the front, we shall generally follow the progressive narrative of the horse. With its hundreds of horses, Lascaux is dedicated to the theme of the sun and the solar year (cf. discussions in Chapters V and XI). Because Lascaux is not a single-gallery cave, the story advances in stops and starts; yet, the general arc of the narrative carries from winter in the back to spring/summer in the front.
Beginning in the southernmost end-section of the cave (refer to the plan, Fig. 44), we are in a rough area characterized by irregular, tight spaces (even a gaping pit toward the end). Not surprisingly, we find several bison figures (images of the earth), but no aurochs (images of the sky), and only a single, inconspicuous stag as a pale emblem of the sky-world. In a section completely dominated by the earth-principle, the solar horses are correspondingly subdued, dark, and static, and one engraved horse (Fig. 45 a, to the right) is even shown in a truly unique frontal view–that is, unable to move, neither inward nor outward–pressed between two of the six lions in the small chamber. The cave’s first mandalas are found here (Fig. 45 a, to the left).
The conceptual framework of complementary dualism preordains an incipient move–however faint–toward the return of sky-related energies to occur at the lowest point in the cycle of the year, and indeed, a first stirring of the “yang” principle happens even here, as a group of ibexes thrust their horns through an enclosing arch that is painted with a thick, black stroke (Fig. 45 a, c). In Palaeolithic art, generally, male ibexes are often the instigators of a move to break the grip of winter (cf. Chapter VII), and here they seem about to attempt just that. The numerical “three,” which is quintessentially sky-related, is marked at the base of the arch, and a cross at the opening of the black barrier amplifies the breach announcing a crossing of paths. The two large mandalas overlooking this scene (at A on the plan, Fig. 44) participate in this initiative, and they appear to represent a progression from the first to the second sign.
The first, innermost, sign (Fig. 45 b, left) reflects the earth-bound environment by the solidly closed circumference. A ritual gesture towards a shift of modality is, however, made with the scraping of the left, winter-related side of the ideogram which is noticeable as a highlighting; we may view this as an exorcism of the forces of winter. Correspondingly, the second, outer sign (Fig. 45 b, right) projects a cosmos with an assertive presence of sky-related features. Significantly, this mandala has a double-stroke at the top, which indicates an opening being made for the release of sky-bound energies of spring.
By comparison with the first mandala, the emphasis has now shifted to the right, the summer-oriented side, where two elements in reddish ocher are added to the engraved square. The lower of these signs is a three-pronged plant-form (the numerical equivalent of “yang”), and while we already found a vegetation symbol engraved below the left corner of first mandala, this (second) one has moved higher in the ground and is warming up (the red color means that much); these are steps toward the awakening of the earth’s life in spring/summer. Finally, the upper red sign, which is a frequently recurring symbol in Lascaux, carries distinct associations to vegetation (opposed leaves on a stem; cf. Fig. 49 a; Fig. 54 b) but also to expansion and growth in general (cf. the example on the belly of a full mare; Fig. 47). Jointly, the two painted signs (Fig. 45 b, to the right) speak of life stirring in the realm of the earth and, eventually, bursting out into the realm of the sky; the forces of “yin” overcome by those of “yang.” In this process, the growth of vegetation may be only a metaphor for the impending awakening of sky-related energies (those of the adjacent ibexes, for example). Invariably, the “growth” sign bursting out at the top of the outer mandala recalls the above-described compositions showing streams of dots or flowing ribbons as visual evidence of vital energies released by mandala-like signs.
The Nave: the birth of the sun
The mandalas in the back predict the escape of the horse/sun from imprisonment in the Lion Chamber, and this event is realized with monumental splendor in the description of the birth of the sun from the bosom of the black cow, the main panel of the Nave (at B in Fig. 44). Here, around the middle of the cave and past a low-set panel of two large bison, the cave changes into the characteristic profile of the outer cave; that is, with a horizontal ledge separating a sky-like vault above from an earth-like foundation below. The panoramic decoration reflects this transition, as horses come up from below (Fig. 46 a, right and center) and then continue above the “horizon” separating vault and base. The famous multi-colored mandalas (Fig. 46, a and c) are placed here, to (ritually) assist and to (aesthetically) celebrate the event.
The (re)birth of the solar horse from the huge, all-black body of the cow–that is, the night sky–is a milestone in the reconstitution of sky-related powers, the victory of light over darkness. This achievement is duly proclaimed (on the opposing wall, at D in Fig. 44) by a monumental frieze of five large stags, rising above the rocky clay bank to lift a tiny yellow horse’s head aloft on their antlers (Aujoulat 2004, 180-81).
The three mandalas (Fig. 46 c) participate in this celebration with their exceptional coloration (rendered in colors, idem. 176). In fact, they represent all the colors available to the artists of Lascaux, even including a purplish shade of red used nowhere else in the cave and rarely elsewhere (possibly a mixture of some hematite and oxidized manganese; Lima 2012, 13, 87). We should not be surprised to find black generously included along with vibrant colors, for the particular logic of complementary dualism saw harmony as encompassing both, making the mystery of darkness and of the confining womb (like the womb of the black cow) inseparable from the light and expansiveness of creation. Chinese philosophers considered dark colors to be yin and bright colors to be yang, and they recommended uniting them–as in the rainbow–on the occasion of festivals (Granet 1975, 145). As shown in the Nave, the birth of the sun is, indeed, a festive event.
In observation of the cosmic scheme of the mandalas, the sky-cow’s feet and tail reach into the three squares from above, while the horse/sun, rising out of the earth, passes through one sign from below. The latter is possible because the mandalas straddle the ledge–that is the horizon, appearing with the advent of light–mediating between sky vault and earth base (Fig. 46 a, center). The position of the just-mentioned horse–the image of the rising sun–perfectly illustrates the function of the signs as cosmograms (cf. Fig. 46 b). In terms of space, the horse’s head and neck rise above the sky-section (the top tier) of the square, while simultaneously crossing from the physical earth bank into the vaulted ceiling. Meanwhile, the horse’s back stays below the sky tier, and so, remains at the surface of the earth. Articulating this in terms of time, the forequarters are to the left of the mandala (Fig. 46 b), because the front of the solar horse is the beginning of time (be it the morning of the day, or the spring season of the year). The horses tail is, however, below and behind the sign, because the tail is the tie to winter (cf. the similar Pasiega scene; Fig. 22 e).
The top central segment of the ideogram in question is marked with the two short strokes that signal the opening of the ideogram with the consequent outburst of sky-related energies, as is amply illustrated in the scene at large. In this same ideogram (Fig. 46 b) we also notice that the two verticals that delineate the center field has little appendices like upward pointing arrows or, alternatively, stylized vegetation. Significantly, each stem carries six leaves for a total of twelve, which may signify a year of twelve months (like certain ideograms in Castillo; cf. Fig. 18 b, and Fig. 19 b). In sum, the three mandalas embrace all of the world, its time, space, and life, all of which get their beauty from the sun. These signs are visual hymns to the sun.
The follow-up to this spectacle, as shown toward the end of the Nave (at C, Fig. 44), advances the progress of the year into early summer. The balance of earth-related and sky-related forces, then, shifts decisively toward the latter (Fig. 47). The bison (“yin”) and the horse (“yang”) are here shown separating, as one horse’s hindquarters (the winter-related part of the animal) disengages from the body of the bison (Fig. 47, to the right), while other horses continue toward the outside and summer, and the bison returns toward the interior and winter. The image of an agitated stallion pursuing a mare (Fig. 47, center) suggests the time of early summer, in which case the fullness of the mare may just signify fertility in a general sense (the mare foaled in late spring). This, in any case, seems to be the message of the large “growth” sign, demonstratively engraved on the mare’s body.
Striking a quite deliberate pose, the mare stretches out a front leg toward the painted mandala that closes the frieze (Fig. 47, left). This is a square sign that has both an earth tier indicated and the double-mark of “opening” on the sky side, and it, thus, demonstrates the essential meaning of the panel: the impregnation of the earth by the sun and the resulting renewal of the world. The horse’s gesture of actually pointing to the mandala is the more interesting, as it implicates abstract ideogram and animal agent within the same virtual reality (in which it recalls the gesture of the doe at Pasiega; Fig. 24 e). From Egyptian art we are familiar with written characters and symbols (the “ankh” sign, for example) as physical participants in figurative scenes (an “ankh” sign with two legs, or a stream of “ankh” signs poured from a vase, etc.) We may see the Lascaux mandala in this perspective: the pregnant horse, embodying growth (and carrying a “growth” sign) points to the mandala as both explanation and cause of the blessings bestowed on the world.
The Axial Gallery: the circle of the year
Because the plan of Lascaux is complex, its narrative program is non-linear and includes two elliptic episodes, one in the Axial Gallery, the other in the Apse. The Axial Gallery (cf. Fig. 44) prolongs the Rotunda, but on a less grandiose scale, and with a floor that falls steadily toward the back, to end, at its lowest point, with the entrance of a narrow, twisting Tunnel; inside the Tunnel is the only bison image in this part of the cave (at H on the plan, Fig. 44). The decoration of the Axial Gallery acknowledges the polar extremes of the Rotunda at one end and the serpentine appendix at the other end, regressing from summer to winter following the left-hand wall (on entering) and progressing from winter back to summer following the opposite wall (on leaving). The horses on the left-hand wall move inward and downward, while they change from bright summer colors to dark winter coats; on the right-hand wall they move outward and upward, changing from dark hues to bright ones in the process. Significantly, a conspicuous mandala marks the low point at which the horse/year turns direction (Fig. 48).
The low end of the Axial Gallery is also the point in the cave that is geographically farthest towards the south-east–the direction of the rising sun at winter solstice–and the emergence of a horse, rising vertically out of the mouth of the Tunnel (Fig. 48, left) dramatically shows the return of the sun at the lowest moment of the year (cf. discussion in Chapters V and XI). Within this scenario, the large, red mandala, placed right above the Tunnel, plays a crucial, clearly defined role.
This ideogram (Fig. 48, center) is vertically divided into three fields, of which the left-hand one is oriented toward winter, the right-hand one toward summer. The low section, set off by a horizontal line, is obviously associated with the earth-region of the Tunnel just below. The significance of the mandala is, again, brought out by its inclusion in the animated scene, as it is symmetrically flanked by two large, antithetic ibexes: adjacent to the winter-side of the mandala is the innermost ibex, which is all black; connected to the summer-side of the sign is the outermost ibex, which is all yellow. Both the black ibex and the yellow ibex are unique figures in the cave, and their striking color contrast shows with graphic clarity that the function of the mandala is tied to the transition from winter to summer; more precisely the ideogram is instrumental in the transformation. Strategically placed at the nadir of the year, the divided sign confirms the philosophical principle that moves the world beyond the pull of the earth and winter, energizing the return of the sky-world and summer. In agreement with this reading, the yellow ibex is surrounded by horses that move outward, toward summer.
In further pursuit of the cosmology implied by the above complex, a second mandala (at I in Fig. 44) is focused on the dimension of space. This ideogram (Fig. 43 f) is divided horizontally in two halves that differ by the number of internal divisions: “four” for the earth below; “three” for the sky above. The first mandala (the one framed by two ibexes) is devoted to the horizontal dimension and the expanse of time after mid-winter, when the sun returns; the second mandala acknowledges the co-existence of earth and sky as the condition of world renewal.
The subsequent ascent of the year is described through a file of horses that move upward and outward, toward the Rotunda (from I to J, Fig. 44), and in the process, these figures also grow in size while changing their appearances from dark brown and black to yellow and bright white; that is, from winter coats to summer coats. Above the most luminous of these horses we find the cave’s last mandala-type sign (Fig. 49 a). Considering the location, near the threshold to the Rotunda, it seems significant that the artist who painted this red sign chose to set off the top section of this square sign–the sky-side–as a separate section while ignoring the earth-bound bottom section, which is the part that is, typically, acknowledged in the mandalas (from the Chamber of Lions to the back of the Axial Gallery). At the risk of over-interpreting, we may see the sole purpose of this sign as the one of celebrating the eventual triumph of the sky and summer.
Juxtaposed with this final mandala is a white and yellow horse–the epitome of summer–which carries along vegetation signs that are both seasonal indicators and promises of further blessings (Fig. 49 a). Thus, the sign on the horse’s belly has nine leaves, possibly relating to the nine months of human pregnancies (not the gestation of the horse, which lasts fully eleven months).
Ahead of the just-mentioned horse, at the point where the Axial Gallery joins the Rotunda (at K in Fig. 44) we come upon a rectangular sign (Fig. 49 b) that is neither a mandala nor an earth sign, but which, on closer inspection, appears to be a door, with one vertical side (the right) slightly extended above and below the horizontals, while the other vertical meets them at perfect angles. The design is a close match for many depictions of open doors in proto-historic/early historic art. Above this sign a baying stag seems to call the horses out of the depth, guiding them toward the outer world (as mentioned above, a standard role of stags). While we, admittedly, have no extant Palaeolithic doors with which to compare this design, it behooves us to remember that this panel marks the end of a journey that began in the southernmost (winter-related) end of the cave, where the horse/sun had to pass through a “gate” composed of facing lions (Fig. 45 a). Throughout Lascaux, we see the solar horse pass through confining bodies (the earth-bison, the sky cow, even square mandalas) and cross over boundaries (the ledge/horizon, the entrance to the Apse, the mouth of the Tunnel); so, we should not be surprised to see a doorway leading to the final destination of the Rotunda.
With the Rotunda’s monumental frieze of white aurochs bulls, the sky-world was solidly established and no further mandalas were deemed necessary in order to hold the world of darkness at bay. Still, the logic of complementary dualism demanded that the principle of the earth/winter/”yin” be present even at the peak manifestation of the sky/summer/”yang” aspect of creation, and in the Rotunda (at L in Fig. 44) the requisite note of “calamity” is the grotesque carnival figure, who is facing inward, and who is physically pushing the horse (and the solar year) back into the cave, back toward winter (Fig. 50 a). As discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter XI), he represents frost and the dark season and he is a participant in a mock, ritual battle between winter and summer. He is, of course, doomed to defeat, as he faces the file of three absolutely enormous white bulls (one of which is shown in Fig. 50 b). They represent the sky-related principle writ large, while he stands for the weakened earth-related principle (the flattened ovals on his hide recall a common sign for the earth; see a selection of these in Mingo Alvarez 2009). He is, so to speak, the black dot in the white field.
The Apse: epicenter of mandalas
By far the greatest concentration of mandala-like signs in Lascaux is found in the Apse, which contains about forty of the square grid type. The cause for this accumulation is obvious, given that most of the signs are crowded in the back of the Apse and, in particular, densely clustered in the recess at the very end, the Apsidiole, the tiny chamber that enshrines the descent to the Shaft (at F in Fig. 44). The vertical Shaft itself, with the gallery twenty feet below, is designated as the most ominous location of Lascaux by the striking fact that it features the only rhinoceros among the cave’s many hundred figures. This sinister character–part of the famous panel of the wounded bison–is the prime exponent of unpredictable and destructive impulses (cf. Chapter IX), and we may suspect a connection between this emblem of chaotic disorder and the extraordinary collection of mandalas, with their message of cosmic order; not just winter and deprivation is at stake, but a threat of universal destruction.
The decoration of the Apse proceeds–like that of the Axial Gallery–as a boustrophedon, starting on the left-hand wall going in, and returning on the right-hand wall coming out (E and G in Fig. 44). Following the lead of the solar horses, the narrative progresses from fall to winter on the left, and from spring to summer on the right.
The first two mandala-type signs on the left-hand wall address the demise of the horse/year; visibly so, as they are placed directly above two horses that not only are set low on the wall, even at floor level (Fig. 51, bottom right), but which, furthermore, are painted all black (typically, figures in the Apse are merely engraved). These figures evoke the decline and extinction of the solar year, and the anxiety this spectacle may provoke calls for the reassuring induction of the mandalas.
The first mandala holds the added interest of including two red ideograms of the Chauvet-type (Fig. 51, top left; cf. Fig. 42 a) and the exceptional presence of symmetrical ibex’ horns, that may signal the–shifting–equilibrium of summer and winter around the fall equinox (regarding the astronomical role of ibexes, cf. Chapter XI). The second mandala is engraved on the body of a horse that is wounded by long spears (Fig. 51, top right). In a telling reversal, this configuration of horse and ideogram, with the horse turned toward the depths and winter, is a mirror-wise rendition of the above-mentioned group in the Nave (Fig. 46 b) where the horse was turned toward the outside and summer. We may understand the function of the two ideograms in the Apse as protective: in a comment on abrupt decline of the solar horse, these mandalas reassure us that the move into winter is part of a larger scheme.
Figures of stags are far more numerous in the Apse than in the rest of the cave. Only male deer are present; some are large and elaborate; a good number are represented only by the antlers. They are critical to an understanding of the Apse at large, and they fare differently on the two walls: on the left wall they strike a note of death and decline that amplifies the description of the failing horse/solar year; on the right wall they are a study in vigor.
On the left-hand wall, the so-called “stag of thirteen arrows,” a wounded and collapsing animal, catches the eye on entering the Apse (Glory, in Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, 281). Further along the wall, another stag is painted black (idem., 272) and a large (incomplete) figure of a stag is, most unusually, shown on its back with its legs in the air (idem., Pl. xiv). This development culminates on the left wall of the Apsidiole, where a frieze of stags, painted black and marked with arrows, is positioned at floor level, right next to the narrow entrance to the Shaft (Fig. 52, bottom).
At this point, the plight of the stags, like the parallel demise of the horses, tells us that growth has ceased and vital energies are depleted. Obviously addressing this crisis, a veritable web of elaborate, partly overlapping mandalas crowd the tight space. These ideograms seem to specifically adhere to the antlers of the stags (cf. Fig. 52, center), and we may assume that the re-generation of their growth potential is the objective of the intricate display of ideograms.
At the top of this panel, an elaborate build-up of square signs–partially painted in shades of red–takes on the appearance of a continuous, rectangular ideogram (Fig. 52, top), an apogee of mandalas that is closely associated with the two large horses immediately above, and partly covered by, the mega-sign. By a careful manipulation of their joint outline, these two horses “share” one body, with one head turned inward, the other outward; they constitute a Janus-headed figure, which tells us that we are at a crucial turning point, suspended between the end of one year and the beginning of another. We may, then, understand the highly elaborate, composite mandala as the artists’ effort to articulate–and ritually confirm–their sincere thoughts and ardent beliefs about the prospect for a continuation of the year and the world.
That they assumed their ideograms to be efficient becomes clear when we, still in the Apsidiole, shift over from the end of the left wall to the beginning of the right one (the two walls being separated in the very back by a narrow, vertical fissure). This small move is, actually, the passage from the end of one era to the beginning of another, and already on the right-hand wall of the Apsidiole we witness the recovery, again by way of parallel trajectories of horses and stags.
Half a dozen figures of horses (Fig. 53) describe the renewal of the sun/year, beginning with ambiguous movements at the bottom of the panel, but gaining in certainty at the top, where several engraved manes of horses evoke the rays of the energized sun (Fig. 53, top). Several square mandalas interact with these figures. Placed low, just above the Shaft, one square sign separates one horse that is turned both inward and downward from another horse turned up and out, which tells us of the very direct impact of the ideogram (and the philosophy for which it stands), its efficiency in assuring the desired change. A carefully engraved square is juxtaposed with a large, fully recovered, horse in the middle of the panel (Fig. 53, center), and at the top, another (basically) square sign is spreading out into a fan-shape, suggesting a sunburst, in apparent conformity with the bristling manes around it (Fig. 53, top). This mandala–like the colored ones in the Nave–interacts with surrounding figures like in a show of virtual reality, participating in the celebration of the revived sun.
Above the wall, in the tiny cupola that tops the Apsidiole, a horse is seen emerging from a mandala (Fig. 41 b) in which the central field has been graphically emphasized, to point out the spring as the season when the just-described events are happening. The group in the cupola includes a stag (Fig. 41 b) that rises above the mandala, the position of its antlers suggesting the eruption of renewed energies with spring (in agreement with the theme of “maximal yang” discussed above). We may read the composition as sequential: the stag bursts out from the center field of the mandala, which pertains to spring; this opens the way for the horse to move forward through from the outer section, or summer.
Between the two large panels of the Apsidiole occurs the crucial change that moves all of creation out of a world that is closed (earth-related and “yin”), into one that is open (sky-related and “yang”); this transition is formally recognized by way of two bracket-shaped signs, both painted red, that conspicuously face each other across the dividing fissure (Fig. 52, and Fig. 53). Both look like gateways, and it does not seem far fetched to relate them to the tiny, floor-level opening to the Shaft, just below, with the implication that the red arches, too, are passageways to a numinous netherworld. Two short strokes on top of the right-hand sign–but not on the left-hand one), suggest that the latter is a closed passage, the former an open one (cf. the double-strokes on mandalas of the Nave; Fig. 46 c, and Fig. 47). If so, this signals that the closure imposed by winter (the situation on the left-hand wall) is broken open with the end of winter (as seen on the right-hand wall). The antlers of stags seem to play a role in this event, which, in turn, leads to the replenishment of vital energies.
The Apse holds most of Lascaux’s (about sixty) stags, and the right-hand wall, notably, is alive with their, often wildly branching, antlers. This exuberance is evident already in the Apsidiole, where antlers rise like soaring flames to the top of the panel (Fig. 53). In the unfolding of the spring-to-summer narrative of the right-hand wall (G in Fig. 44) the stags play a prominent role, one that is increasingly associated with the introduction of vegetation symbols. This symbiosis of antlers and plants culminates near the exit from the Apse, an area in which images of horses and stags are connected to a unique assortment of plant-like images (Fig. 54, a and b).
One long, finely engraved, vegetation sign (possibly fern-like) winds itself around a head of antlers that, in itself, is truly remarkable for its solid stem–so thick and heavy, it seems, that the animal is brought to its knees by the weight (Fig. 54 a). This ostentatious plant design (as fabulous as the vegetation imagery of Marsoulas) appears to grow out of the last of the square signs in the Apse. An adjacent mandala, at the front legs of the mentioned stag (Fig. 54 a, bottom) is quite elaborate and presents the new and interesting detail that the outer, right-hand field– the summer-related side–here is emphasized by dense striation. We have, thus, come around full circle from the very first mandala, in the Lion Chamber, with its emphasis on the winter-related side (cf. Fig. 45 b).
The just-mentioned two mandalas in the Apse are, along with the one accompanying the rounded mare in the Nave (Fig. 47, left), are the last mandala-like ideograms on the southern side of the Rotunda, a state of affairs that agrees with the result of our analysis: that the cosmic ideograms at this point had fulfilled their purpose of controlling the earth-related forces and promoting the sky-related side of creation; they had secured the renewal of the world’s energies, growth, and life.
Exorcism: the lions in the Apse
The decoration of Lascaux, with its many horses, aurochs and stags, is generally sunny and bright, and the use of mandalas in the cave works to sustain the predominance of the sky-related, or “yang,” side of totality as much as to repress the forces of “yin.” Momentarily, the ritual function of the ideograms may, however, confront the netherworld powers more directly, as is–albeit, implicitly–the case in the Chamber of Lions (cf. Fig. 45 a). In dealing with the lions in the Apse, the approach is, nevertheless, openly confrontational.
On the right-hand wall, the presence of half a dozen small figures of lions–truly monstrous agents of death–can only be perceived as a threat to the blessings just described. These lions occupy a horizontal streak of the wall, below the main figures (Fig. 55 b). They are, thus, kept somewhat marginal, and they are, furthermore, all directed back toward the Shaft–demonstratively, in the opposite direction of the horses and stags. It appears that what repels these beasts, driving them back towards the lower cave, is a number of square signs that surround them and infringe on them intrusively. This function is, notably, illustrated by the configuration in the very back (Fig. 55 a), where the innermost lion (also shown in Fig. 55 b, to the left) appears to be ejected from a square sign (significantly, from the bottom of the winter-oriented section), plunging head first into the steep drop of the Shaft. The mandala itself appears to excite the power that returns the lion to the realm of death and chaos. The dynamics of the dualistic scheme makes the mandala a tool for ritual banishment of evil. The stag that, simultaneously, rises its head above the ideogram shows that the defeat of the netherworld side of creation entails the victory of the upper-world side.
In the larger group of lions and square ideograms (Fig. 55 b), some configurations of grids and lions may suggest–perhaps intentionally–that the animals are being trapped, even though entrapment here may be a hunter’s metaphor rather than a description of the questionable practice of catching lions. In this perspective we may also see the strange trapping of several lion’s tails in square grids (Fig. 55 b, center), probably in reference to a myth about the origins of fire, originally lodged in the lion’s tail (cf. Chapter VIII). In the case of the curiously twisted lion attached to a mandala (Fig. 55 b, at the bottom), the position of the tuft of the tail at the middle of the square seems significant, giving this detail a place at the dead center of the cosmos.
The contorted posture of this, last-mentioned lion (Fig. 56 a) is a unique invention without ready parallels in other Palaeolithic art. It is comprehensible as the result of two contrary motions: the lion’s head points one way, that is outward, but its body is pulled the other way, inward. In other words, the animal aims outward, but it is drawn back. We may, then, assign to the mandala itself the power to “seize” the beast and direct its savagery away from the freshly renewed world (all the while wrestling away the lion’s primordial ownership of fire). However we read this curious figure, the “S”-shaped curve it describes (cf. Fig. 56 b) is perhaps the Ice Age artists’ closest approximation to the inscribed “S” of the oriental yin-yang sign.